With slots un­der pres­sure, good train links are be­com­ing vi­tal

Business Traveller (Middle East) - - Contents -

Lit­tle did Lufthansa know what it had started decades ago, with its “Don­ald Duck” air­port train. Named for its yel­low-and-blue liv­ery and the bill-like ap­pear­ance of its front car­riage, the DB Class 403 took pas­sen­gers the leisurely route from Dus­sel­dorf to Frank­furt air­ports along the scenic Rhine. Lufthansa’s bright idea was the fore­run­ner of the many dozens of air-rail routes that to­day criss-cross main­land Europe. Trav­ellers now have a far greater choice of air-rail ser­vices, but in­stead of tak­ing “clas­sic” routes, they sprint over high-speed tracks link­ing towns and ci­ties to ma­jor hub air­ports.

More­over, some are truly in­ter­na­tional. They cross fron­tiers, en­abling a Bel­gian trav­eller to, for ex­am­ple, take the high-speed train from Brus­sels to fly out of Am­s­ter­dam, Frank­furt or Paris.

In com­par­i­son to Don­ald Duck, on which all pas­sen­gers, re­gard­less of the ticket price or class of their plane, were pro­vided with busi­ness class ser­vice and long-haul busi­ness class seat­ing (from a DC-10), to­day’s air-rail links are util­i­tar­ian and fo­cus in­stead on speed and fre­quency. Lufthansa con­ceived its Don­ald Duck trains to cut the cost of op­er­at­ing short feeder flights, but found it too costly to op­er­ate and with­drew it. Nowa­days, the im­por­tance of air-rail is in free­ing up slots at busy air­ports, pro­vid­ing for­eign air­lines with greater do­mes­tic cov­er­age and giv­ing pas­sen­gers more re­li­able con­nec­tions.

Take Am­s­ter­dam, for ex­am­ple. Schiphol faces a slot short­age and the air­port au­thor­ity wants more trav­ellers to ar­rive by train. Schiphol’s slot short­age is so se­vere in the morn­ing (a peak time for transat­lantic de­par­tures) that, in a bid to in­crease com­pe­ti­tion, the Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sion

As a fur­ther bonus, the rail ticket is of­ten pro­vided free of charge within the cost of the flight ticket

in­structed KLM to sur­ren­der one of its pre­cious New York morn­ing slots to low-cost car­rier Nor­we­gian.

Now Air France and KLM have re­alised the slots are wasted when fly­ing trav­ellers be­tween their twin hubs of Schiphol and Paris CDG. These flights may be re­duced in fu­ture. Di­rect high-speed Thalys trains link­ing both air­lines’ hubs start in 2019.

In Ger­many many for­eign air­lines par­tic­i­pate in Deutsche Bahn’s (DB) Rail and Fly scheme, which links Frank­furt to towns and ci­ties across Ger­many. DB’s scheme in­cludes Am­s­ter­dam and Zurich too. Emi­rates ben­e­fits be­cause the Ger­man gov­ern­ment re­stricts the Dubaibased car­rier to serv­ing no more than four points. Rail and Fly en­ables Emi­rates to cap­ture trav­ellers from many more ci­ties in Ger­many. It means that Emi­rates is able to “serve” the likes of Nurem­berg, Stuttgart and Berlin where it doesn’t have flight slots.

But what hap­pens to the trav­eller in the case of de­lays? Pro­vided the rail link is in­cluded within the flight ticket, they will be pro­tected. And when it comes to win­ter weather, rail is more re­li­able than do­mes­tic air. As a fur­ther bonus, the rail ticket is of­ten pro­vided free of charge within the cost of the flight ticket. Be­cause air-rail links cross fron­tiers be­tween coun­tries, pow­er­ful hub air­ports with ded­i­cated sta­tions can cap­ture pas­sen­gers from a ri­val. As pre­vi­ously men­tioned, Brus­sels is a clas­sic ex­am­ple. The air­port is not linked to the high-speed rail net­work and there­fore those work­ing down­town can quickly ac­cess ri­vals such as Am­s­ter­dam Schiphol and Paris CDG by Thalys and TGVs. Air France lures pas­sen­gers to CDG from Brus­sels and, to make the process eas­ier, it has staff at Brus­sels Midi, the Bel­gian cap­i­tal’s main down­town sta­tion.

For its part, KLM con­tin­ues to take con­nect­ing pas­sen­gers from Brus­sels to Am­s­ter­dam by air. That’s a waste of up to five slots daily and goes against Schiphol’s aim of cut­ting these short flights.

One must also note that there are fre­quent rail ser­vices avail­able from Brus­sels’ down­town sta­tions (many by high­speed Thalys) to Schiphol. I asked KLM for an ex­pla­na­tion and was told: “At present KLM will con­tinue to op­er­ate short-haul flights be­tween Schiphol and des­ti­na­tions such as Brus­sels and Dus­sel­dorf. Cur­rently the rail ser­vices are not suitable for feeder flights due to the longer jour­ney times. We will con­tinue to mon­i­tor the sit­u­a­tion.”

Am­s­ter­dam Schiphol has many trains, both con­ven­tional and high-speed, op­er­at­ing to The Hague, Rot­ter­dam, An­twerp and Brus­sels. It was in­tended that Eu­rostar also call at Schiphol on the way to Am­s­ter­dam, but it never hap­pened. UK Bor­der and Chan­nel Tun­nel au­thor­i­ties in­sist pas­sen­gers are pre-cleared be­fore board­ing, which would re­quire Schiphol’s train sta­tion to have a sep­a­rate ter­mi­nal. UK Bor­der and the Dutch au­thor­i­ties have yet to ap­prove the new Am­s­ter­dam/ Rot­ter­dam de­par­ture ter­mi­nals, so trav­ellers go­ing Am­s­ter­dam-Lon­don must change at Brus­sels Midi for im­mi­gra­tion/cus­toms clear­ance.

Air-rail en­ables Air France to draw pas­sen­gers from all over France. A large net­work of do­mes­tic TGVs run di­rectly to CDG. Even Ouigo (SNCF’s bud­get TGV) serves CDG. Although not in­cluded in the air-rail scheme, the lat­ter is use­ful for cost-con­scious trav­ellers.

In fu­ture air-rail can only be­come more pop­u­lar sim­ply be­cause slots will be­come scarcer still and most large air­ports al­ready have sim­ple rail con­nec­tions link­ing the air­port with down­town.

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