On Wednesday 7 August 2019 Britain’s Rail Delivery Group (RDG) announced that it would be withdrawing from membership of the highly-valued and long-standing Interrail Europe-wide rail passes for European residents, along with the Eurail equivalent for non-European residents. Protests were loud and clear, many on Twitter. A day later the RDG backed down. Railfuture looks at what happened and why.
Since 1972 millions of Britons, just like those in other countries, have bought an Interrail pass to explore Europe by rail at an affordable cost. It was initially only for younger people (under 21), and seen as a rite of passage, but it has been since expanded to people of all ages (with young people and seniors buying it at a lower cost).
An Interrail pass cannot be used in one’s own country, for obvious commercial reasons, other than to make the outward and/or return journey on an Interrail voyage. A British resident could, for example, use the first of the days on their pass to travel from Edinburgh to London then take Eurostar train to Paris.
There is also an Eurail pass, which gives people from across the world the same travel opportunities, albeit it at a slightly higher cost (since they do not pay taxes that subsidise the European railways).
Passes can be bought from the https://www.interrail.eu/ and https://www.eurail.com/ websites.
As well as accepting Interrail and Eurail passes, for which it gets a share of the revenue, Britain markets its own Britrail pass, which is exclusively for travel in Britain (variants allowing travel in all or part of England, Scotland and Wales), with British train companies getting 100% of the revenue. A Britrail add-on allows travel throughout the island of Ireland and can be purchased at the same time.
The Britrail pass is administered by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which is primarily a trade association for all of Britain’s train operators (although its members also include other companies, such as state-owned Network Rail, which owns and operates the rail network).
The RDG was happy to continue to accept income from the Interrail pass (a product that it does nothing to market, unlike railways elsewhere in Europe). However, it wanted to stop accepting the Eurail pass so that it could have a monopoly on the sales of passes to travellers from non-European countries. One could say that it wanted to have its cake and eat it.
The problem is that the two passes are issued by the same organisation, managed together, and come as a pair, so a country either accepts both or neither.
The RDG essentially said “OK, if those are your terms we’ll pull out completely”, and intended to do so from 1 January 2020, when its current agreement would have come to an end.
Railfuture lost no time in publicly criticising the short-sighted decision on the grounds that:
- British passengers living far from London and the south east would face increased costs to take Eurostar trains, and might choose to fly to the European mainland from which they would start their Interrail trips
- Because of the added cost and effort of buying two passes rather than one, fewer tourists, especially younger people, would visit Britain (affecting tourism), or if they still came they may hire a car rather than use Britain’s railway.
The effect of Britain withdrawing from Interail and Eurail would certainly include a) fewer rail journeys made in Britain, b) more cars on the roads in Britain; c) more flights to and from Britain. None of these are welcome, especially as many people are worried about the so-called Climate Emergency.
Prior to announcing its withdrawal from the scheme, few people had heard of the RDG, with its only public profile being a defence of fare increases each January. The bad publicity, not helped by unfairly seeking to blame the Eurail Group, led to a torrent of criticism towards this once invisible body. Railfuture played its part on Twitter, in radio interviews, and private communications.
It is remarkable that the public climb down, in an industry not known for dynamism, was just one day later. Railfuture has been trying to forge links with the Eurail Group to help promote Britain’s railway to people elsewhere in Europe so it is a relief that RDG has abandoned its ‘go it alone’ stance.
Like an awards ceremony, there’s a list of individuals and organisations that Railfuture would like to thank, which include
- Grant Shapps, Secretary of state for Transport, and individual train operators, for putting pressure on the Rail Delivery to reverse its decision
- Other senior politicians, such as Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, who said pulling out was “self-defeating and regressive”
- Mark Smith, Man in Seat 61, for shedding so much light on this matter
- European Passengers’ Federation, of which Railfuture is a member, for raising the profile of the RDG’s decision throughout Europe.
And, of course, we thank everyone who took to Twitter and other forms of social media to raise their unhappiness in a polite manner.
Well done to the management in the Rail Delivery Group who recognised that they had made a major mistake, swallowed their pride, and reversed the decision within a day. Hopefully they’ve learned a valuable lesson for the future.
Railfuture will continue to work constructively with the Rail Delivery Group of passenger matters such as fares and ticketing reform, including the promotion of CIV tickets, which allow delayed international passengers to be put on the next available train without paying extra.
Read our press release welcoming the reversal of the RDG’s decision.
Railfuture was interviewed on the talkRADIO – listen to media spokesman Bruce Williamson when it was announced (he calls it an “act of selfishness by the train operators” in Britain) and Chris Fribbins after the climbdown (he explains how the pass can be used).
Railfuture is run entirely by volunteers and funded by its many members (click Join). It campaigns to improve the passenger experience on Britain’s railway.