In December 2019, I was traveling in Austria and Germany on business and leisure. As part of the trip, I ended up in Stuttgart in southwestern Germany and had a day during which I wanted to explore another nearby city as a tourist.
In any major European city it is expected that a train network will enable travel to nearby cities. Stuttgart is no exception. However, for various reasons, I ended up making an unusual choice, for me, and travelled by several hours to a nearby city by intercity coach. Here, I will outline my travel options, the travel experiences — both positive and negative — what this may mean for the transport industry, and the state of the intercity coach market in Germany, and more widely, in Europe. These experiences reflect on changes in the European transport market, as well as potentially in the North American market where coach travel is much more popular, and where the emerging new market participant is slowly becoming the intercity train.
A choice rider
Firstly, I enjoy train travel. As part of a leisure journey, I look forward to sitting in a comfortable train and watching the passing countryside for a few hours. While I am a licensed driver and have driven on many long journeys over the years, I no longer would “enjoy” this as a regular part of a leisure experience. Car rental would not personally be considered a reasonable option for such a leisure trip.
Leisure travel and business travel entail differing mindsets about price, comfort, travel time, how many people are travelling together, the amount of luggage you may be carrying, and your actual final destination — within the city, suburbs or rural, etc. My journey was a purely discretionary leisure journey where I had a range of potential destinations, but a specific timing constraint regarding returning to my starting point. I was also cost conscious as a high cost travel option would encourage choice of an alternative travel destination.
Eventually, I decided on a day trip from Stuttgart to Heidelberg.
Across Europe, the EU has fostered the development of a competitive intercity transport market. This has seen the emergence of new open access rail operators who challenge the former state rail monopolies — in Germany’s case Deutsche Bahn (DB). As part of this evolution, intercity coaches have been allowed, and in fact encouraged, across the Union. It may be surprising, but the intercity coach market in many European counties, except for perhaps the UK, Spain, Portugal, and Scandinavia, has been very limited up until recently. There are, however, numerous coach “charters” for tour groups, excursions, and more.
The rail market is growing sharply across Europe — up 1.7% in the first half of 2019 in Germany. Stations are being rebuilt and expanded, high-speed rail routes constructed, new rolling stock added, and taxes on train travel are being reduced. Nevertheless, coach travel is providing additional competition to train operators, along with the mentioned open access operators, ridesharing, low cost airlines, etc.
In a European context these choices are of critical importance in making sustainable travel options much more appealing. They also support the development of regional economies.
Intercity coach travel in Europe
In Germany, this has led to the establishment over the last few years of several operators, but in particular, FlixBus. The company uses the well-established model seen in the UK’s National Express of acting as an overall brand for a series of local operators. FlixBus controls network design, marketing, sales, customer experience design, and branding, while the driver and vehicle are provided by the operator who is otherwise invisible to the user. In France, we have seen the rise of BlaBlaBus, Ouibus, and other operators. However, as an example of the limited development of the coach market, coach options have until recently been extremely limited in Italy.
Coaches are having to find a market niche that can compete with the inherent subsidies for rail travel as well as personal driving and other options. This entails considering the level of luxury, pricing, in-vehicle amenities such as Wi-Fi, power sockets and toilets, and frequency of service. A particular issue is the location of depots. Most European cities do not have a desirable and high-profile intercity coach station. The usual coach depot is adjacent to, but at times still some distance from a main rail station, and often in a less desirable area with minimal amenities.
This can be an advantage to the operators, however, to minimize costs. In some cases, new coach facilities are being developed and this is particularly evident at airports.
For this journey, I wanted to travel the 80 miles from Stuttgart to Heidelberg on a Monday morning. I considered the options.
Firstly, there is a direct high-speed rail line connecting the cities with locations along the Rhine and on to Paris, which is ideal for business travel. This service is operated by DB or SNCF. However, this option was remarkably expensive for the last-minute leisure journey — over $22 each way. While it would be a quick travel option — under one hour — and would maximize leisure time, it didn’t seem to represent value for time saving and correlate with my travel needs.
Disappointingly, for this “medium” length trip, there wasn’t a slower secondary line that would offer reasonable travel times and lower cost. Regional services are also provided by DB.
There are now open access train operators in the German market. This includes train operators from neighboring countries such as France (SNCF), Switzerland (SBB), and Poland. In many cases, these cross-border services are operated in cooperation with DB. Fully private operators have also entered the market. Services have consolidated under the FlixTrain brand. FlixTrain, which was launched in 2018, offers lower prices, less frequent services, lower travel speeds and uses older, but refurbished rolling stock. Quality remains high and, in many cases, the premium level of service in a high speed or recently constructed train may not be required if the basics are done well.
For this journey, the FlixTrain option was unappealing as while the price and service quality would be ideal, the timing was an early morning departure and inconsistent with a leisure journey. Service was limited to up to two trains a day on this route.
Landing on intercity coach
Thus, I considered the intercity coach and, in this case, FlixBus. FlixBus was launched in 2011. Coach had the immediate advantage of offering a journey starting and returning to Stuttgart Airport — from where I would return to the UK later the same day, and thus, maximizing the opportunity for leisure.
The operational flexibility of the coach allowed for hourly departure and the price — at about $13 return was attractive. The booking process was easy and online. All travelers must book online in advance. The driver validates your online purchase.
Several issues became apparent in this coach journey, however.
Simply finding the coach station was a significant issue at the airport in Stuttgart. Although, I was sure it existed, it remains an afterthought versus the other connecting landside modes and was clearly offered some of the least attractive real estate. While the space was under a new car park, it remained exposed to the weather, distant from any amenities including toilets and cafes, had limited seating, and no permanent staff presence to provide information and security.
The situation in Heidelberg was substantially worse. The station has been located on a local street near the main railway station — about 150 yards away. It is poorly signed and lit and is only clear due to the presence of other passengers who seem to be waiting. Furthermore, as there is some new development in the area, which is good, the sidewalk and other street infrastructure were in poor condition. All of this creates further traveler and operational stress and increases the potential for operational inefficiencies and longer-term costs.
The lack of staff exposes the issue of whether vehicles are on time and exactly where they will depart from. FlixBus had considered this challenge via email updates of booked services to customers. Furthermore, as seen at their pickup location in Heidelberg, they have developed a low-cost e-paper poster unit that provides real-time information on the stop location for their buses and expected arrival times. This was a remarkably effective innovation as several coaches were running late on my return journey.
Intercity coach versus train travel
The vehicles were generally clean, new, and typically double deck. Toilets were provided on board, as well as free Wi-Fi, power points, and reading lights. Seats reclined and were acceptably spacious. While the on-board level of comfort and space was not nearly as generous as typically expected on a train, not all trains are spacious and train operators seem too often forget this inherent advantage in designing their on-board experience.
The coach services generally seem to operate on the marginal cost pricing model with later bookings costing more and deep discounting of early ticket purchases. The services seemed to have extremely high occupancy rates with customers from a range of backgrounds and ages, including younger people traveling with their parents, students, cost conscious lower wage travelers, long distance travelers who were using multiple connecting coaches, tourists, and some business people who found this option most convenient.
The need for the driver to check tickets, support loading of luggage bays, deal with customer questions, manage on-board issues, and drive the vehicle in a minimal amount of time to maintain the schedule resulted in an amount of confusion, stress, and delay. While, minimizing costs, the driver’s role brings into question several longer-term operating procedures in the coach market and whether more investment could make the system work more efficiently for longer-term business gains.
The travel experience was acceptable and relatively comfortable, but not of the quality that one could expect on even a basic rail service. This was particularly an issue on the return journey at night, where it was not feasible to enjoy a view and the on-board experience was not sufficiently spacious to read or use a laptop. However, costs were much lower, and the service offered frequent and, in the end, a timely end to end journey.
Train travel also at times suffers from on-board experience issues due to crowding and as a consequence of delays. However, I think the space and quality of the train ride enables a more forgiving response from travelers.
Flix has been impressive post-journey in seeking online feedback and promoting further travel. They are also clearly seeking to cross market their coach and rail services.
As stated, I am a fan of rail travel, but this was a situation where surprisingly and disappointingly trains were not going to meet my needs. Coach travel, as provided by FlixBus, absolutely enabled me to have a cost effective, timely leisure day trip, which is precisely what I was seeking.
While providing additional choice for the traveler, coaches have several potential advantages yet some product weaknesses. By addressing the locations of terminals, signage, and ongoing support, and particularly improving the in-vehicle experience to make work, reading, and other time productive use of the journey more feasible, I think the coach market can more competitively position itself in the choice based, sustainable journey set for the future in Europe.
Giles K. Bailey is a director at Stratageeb Ltd., a London-based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation.