Germany is world leader in terms of connecting its major airports to the national rail network, but Dr-Ing Edmund Krieger argues that the investment in hardware is not yet being matched by 'software' improvements in terms of services and passenger handling

Dr-Ing Edmund Krieger is Vice-President, Marketing & Strategy, for Düsseldorf International Airport

WITH NINE out of the 12 principal German airports already enjoying direct rail services, the level of integration between the two modes can be considered exemplary.

The most obvious omissions from the growing list are Berlin Tegel, ranking fourth, and Hamburg, ranking fifth. But a rail link to Hamburg airport is already under construction and is due to be finished in 2007. Tegel is set to disappear within the next few years, when Berlin Brandenburg International takes shape on the site of the current Berlin Sch?€?nefeld airport. BBI will be fully integrated into the DB network when it becomes operational in about 2011, so within a couple of years nearly all of the important German airports will be accessible by rail.

Whilst Germany seems to be making more progress than most other countries with integrating its airports into the national rail network, the present success story has had a long and difficult history. Federal transport policy has always favoured air-rail integration, but back in the 1970s it was difficult to overcome a degree of reluctance from some railway officials.

Whilst the physical links are in place, however, the quantity and quality of rail services can differ markedly. Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Leipzig/Halle and K?€?ln/Bonn airports are fully integrated into long-distance high speed, regional and suburban rail services. Sch?€?nefeld is mainly served by regional trains and the Berlin S-Bahn, but München, Stuttgart, Hannover and Dresden are only served by their respective S-Bahn networks.

In terms of frequency, Düsseldorf airport is the best served, with more than 400 trains per day, followed by Frankfurt with about 360. Sch?€?nefeld ranks next with 211 trains. But München, which is the second biggest airport, lacks any access by regional or long-distance services, and passengers are faced with a 40min S-Bahn journey to reach the city centre. The diversion or extension of long-distance services would be difficult, because the airport is located a long way from any of the principal main lines serving the city.

Overall, German air travellers have a good choice in terms of getting to any airport by rail as well as other modes. Even better is the fact that passengers from abroad can reach their final destination conveniently by train, avoiding the hassle and expense of car rental, taxis or negotiating complicated urban transport networks.

But where are the means to encourage customers to do so? The hardware - in terms of rail links and stations - is readily available. The software - things like ticketing, baggage handling and passenger information or other incentives - has been more difficult to develop.

Customer incentives

In some respects, things were better two decades ago, when Lufthansa offered its famous Airport Express, linking Frankfurt and Düsseldorf airports via K?€?ln and Bonn. 'Flying at Ground Level', as it was promoted, made no difference to the passenger compared to going by plane.

Changing from plane to train involved the same baggage-handling and ticketing procedures as changing from plane to plane. The sudden abolition of these services in 1992 came as a complete surprise to the travelling public, and was officially blamed by Lufthansa on the rising cost of chartering the dedicated trainsets.

Until 1996 Lufthansa continued to offer advanced check-in facilities at several main stations, such as Düsseldorf, K?€?ln, Bonn and Nürnberg, in conjunction with travel to Frankfurt airport on regular DB express trains. This product, which was originally developed as an add-on to the Lufthansa Airport Express, came to a sudden end when DB decided to cease its on-train baggage handling services in general, withdrawing the operational base that supported the Lufthansa facility.

As well as the high-profile Airport Express, there were other incentives to use rail. Passengers travelling with various airlines were offered free travel on regional rail services in the greater Rhine-Main (Frankfurt) and Rhine-Ruhr (Düsseldorf) regions. Their air ticket was accepted as a valid ticket on local public transport, funded by a lump sum payment from the respective airlines to the regional transport authorities. But these facilities have also gone, as growing cost pressures in the 1990s led the airlines to cease their funding for the arrangements.

Another promotion in the 1990s was DB's flat-rate Rail&Fly ticket. By presenting their air tickets at any station booking office, passengers could buy this special ticket, which included urban transport connections to those airports not directly accessible by rail. This promotion vanished some years ago, for no clear reason.

All of these ambitious attempts to drive air-rail business through softer elements failed, mainly for reasons of cost. So what can the German air-rail passenger expect today and what are the perspectives for tomorrow?

The baggage-handling problem

With the objective of freeing slots at capacity-constrained Frankfurt airport, Lufthansa is still interested using rail to replace its ultra-short-haul feeder flights from Düsseldorf, K?€?ln/Bonn, Stuttgart and Nürnberg.

To keep the competitive edge, check-in and baggage-handling services equivalent to air feeder routes are seen as essential. But baggage loading and unloading on the trains remains the crucial issue, even after more than 10 years of discussions which have not made any substantial progress.

Today there are only two German cities where passengers can check in their baggage at main stations: K?€?ln and Stuttgart. This 'AIRail' product is offered by Lufthansa and Frankfurt airport on regular high speed ICE services to and from Frankfurt Airport station. But as the storage capacity for heavy baggage on these trains is only about 50 items, the number of air-rail passengers per train is also likewise restricted.

Given these limits there is next to no possibility of withdrawing the parallel flights. Even worse, the extension of AIRail to more cities such as Düsseldorf and Dortmund is prevented by the loading and unloading procedures at Frankfurt Airport station which would result in intolerable waiting times for through trains.

In fact, the current position on baggage handling is significantly worse than the situation 15 years ago, and there is no solution in prospect. During that time, DB has developed and introduced its third generation of ICE trainsets, without addressing the need for a practical approach to handling air-rail baggage.

Off-terminal check-in

When Frankfurt and Düsseldorf airports designed their new long-distance railway stations, check-in facilities were provided close to the rail platforms. Because there was a considerable distance between the station and the air terminals, to be covered by shuttle services or walking, substantial efforts were invested in providing the best possible passenger service, allowing them to drop their baggage as soon as possible using these off-terminal facilities.

In practice, most passengers don't seem to care. For whatever reason, they prefer to keep on carrying their luggage into the air terminal themselves, even ignoring the huge signs advertising the facilities. At Düsseldorf, the minimal usage led to the off-terminal facilities being closed down after just three years, to the great regret of all parties involved. The facility at Frankfurt is still open but poorly used. In this example, the efforts to offer a better quality of service were simply not appreciated by the travelling public.

Interlining evolves

In the past few years DB has entered into a number of interline agreements with different airlines. Some trains have been given flight numbers, allowing them to be processed like flights in the airlines' computer reservations systems. The most important advantage of this is the global visibility of air-rail connectivity, combined with standardisation of booking procedures for trains and planes. Currently DB has interline agreements with Lufthansa (to AIRail destinations Stuttgart and K?€?ln only) and with American Airlines, Continental and TAP Portugal.

In addition, DB has contracts with more than 90 airlines for specific Rail&Fly promotions. These allow the airlines to offer attractive flat-rate tickets to their customers for feeder rail services, varying from minor discounts on normal fares to free travel. The biggest German tour operator TUI also offers free rail travel nationwide with all its inclusive tour packages, based on a similar contract.

The main difference to the interline agreements is that the Rail&Fly offers are add-ons, and not an integral part of the itinerary. So they lack the global visibility in city-pair searches on the airline reservation systems.

Onboard check-In

With the development and roll-out by many airlines of CUSS (Common User Self-Service check-in) technology, another long-envisaged idea may become possible. Why not combine the time needed to reach the airport with the time needed to check in, by providing check-in facilities on board trains?

Passengers reaching the airport by rail would enjoy an advantage compared to those coming by car. With CUSS machines set to be operational at most airports soon, it is only a small step to fit them on airport-bound trains. The biggest problem, as always, will be the cost. But I believe it would certainly be worthwhile to test the concept.

It is possible that customers would greatly appreciate the time-saving opportunity. Or they won't care - like the lesson that we learned with the off-terminal station check-in facilities. All we can do is try it and see.

  • CAPTION: Düsseldorf is best-served, in terms of frequency, with more than 400 trains a day
  • CAPTION: Manual baggage handling at K?€?ln Hbf is only provided for Lufthansa AIRail passengers travelling to and from Frankfurt Airport
  • CAPTION: Disused check-in area at Düsseldorf Airport railway station
  • CAPTION: Lack of capacity prevents the porovision of checked baggage services on the ICE-3s which call at Düsseldorf Airport station

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