» Eurostar has 85% market share on direct trips to and from London; trips requiring transfer, however, have less than 5% share.
Slightly less than fifteen years ago, Eurostar began offering services under the English Channel between the United Kingdom and continental Europe. The line has been met with unequivocal success. Railway Gazette reports today that Eurostar has grabbed an 85% share of the air-rail market on trips between London and Paris, Bruxelles, and Lille. The speed-up of the service over the years, from 2h56 between the French and UK capitals in 1994 to 2h15 today, has played a large role in the corridor’s high ridership. Eurostar’s popularity, like that of domestic high-speed services in France, Spain, and Japan, demonstrates the great value of investing in fast train systems.
Yet the Gazette article also notes that on routes where customers are required to transfer — such as between London and Koln, a link that can only be made via a connection to a Thalys train at Bruxelles — Eurostar market share is reduced to a pitiful 4%. What gives? Are people so disinclined to transfer trains that they’ll switch to an air trip if they can’t take a direct train? Is through service the only way to ensure high ridership?
There are obvious reasons for customers preference for direct trips. Once you’re settled in on the train, you have a cafe at your disposition, power outlets, sometimes wireless internet. You have far more space than on the airplane and the ability to walk around at will. In other words, a train trip, as long as it’s reasonably quick, can be incredibly productive for business people and far less stressful a travel experience for everyone else. The Gazette piece points out that on other European rail services, trains have a 50% air-rail market share on trips of up to even four hours — when there are direct connections.
But on trips requiring transfers between trains, the advantages of rail travel diminish significantly, because much of the productivity possible on the train comes as a result of the comfort it provides, not as a consequence of its speed. Once customers have to lug their bags from one train to another and walk through often-crowded stations, train travel looses many of its advantages. In the air, direct flights are easier to come by, and even with a transfer, your bags are handled for you, out of sight.
In some ways, of course, Eurostar is an exception that exasperates the problem. Because the United Kingdom is outside of the European free exchange zone, travelers must pass through customs and stations must be outfitted with immigration facilities if they are to provide direct service into London. Taking a train between France and Germany, on the other hand, requires no such bureaucracy.
Nonetheless, the disadvantages of transfers apply to other routes as well. If we are to assume that direct service is necessary to convince people to take the train, through-routing of trains should be prioritized over more frequent service. For customers using a potential future Midwest high-speed rail network to get between Milwaukee and Detroit, for example, four trains a day directly from Milwaukee to Detroit might attract double the patronage of eight trains a day between Milwaukee and Chicago and eight trains a day from Chicago to Detroit — even though the latter option would probably save a lot of people time. Eliminating transfers is incredibly important.
Jarrett makes a strong argument at Human Transit that terminal stations provide a better customer experience than through-stations, but the evidence presented above may demonstrate that the appeal of direct routes should dictate that virtually every high-speed station be through-running. France’s plans for new interconnections around Paris seems appealing from the perspective of increasing the number of direct trains, and a track connection between Eurostar services and the United Kingdom’s planned High-Speed 2 seems all but obligatory if British planners want to encourage rail travel to mainland Europe from anywhere other than London.