So here’s a prediction for the year ahead. Looking at European trends in budget travel, we are confident that 2013 will be the year of the long-distance coach. Following liberalization of coach transport elsewhere in Europe, big changes are now afoot in Germany, with the scrapping (on Jan 1, 2013) of an 80-year-old law that has given the German Federal Railways an effective monopoly on long-distance public transport within Germany.
The Berlin dispensation
The grip of the Bahn has generally militated against the development of coach services in Germany — despite the country having an excellent network of highways. There are one or two exceptions. More relaxed rules have applied on routings to and from Berlin, a legacy of the Cold War period when West Berlin was an isolated fragment of territory (occupied by the United States and its allies) in the heart of East Germany.
Particularly since the unification of Germany in 1990, a consortium of coach operators (running road services with the blessing of the railways under the Berlin Linien Bus banner) has linked Berlin with cities in western Germany, compensating for what were — particularly in the early days after unification — poor rail services from the principal West German cities to Berlin.
New markets, new players
Yes, you get the drift. The German Railways have effective stifled competition by long-distance coach services. That changes at the end of this year. A number of non-German operators are eyeing up the inner-German market. Britain’s National Express is a player to watch. French transport conglomerate Veolia Transdev is also said to be interested.
Return of the Postbus and international operators
There will surely be some German operators, too. The Deutsche Post is edging into an alliance with ADAC (an unlikely partner, some might say, as it is a membership organization that promotes the interests of automobile owners) to launch coach services on German highways. It seems that the return of the postbus is nigh.
The change in law will also greatly benefit the many international operators who run ultra-long distance coach services across Germany, but who are presently precluded from taking any inner-German traffic. Their services are currently only available to passengers making international journeys.
Many Germans find it hard to get their heads round the idea that anyone might actually want to take a long-distance coach rather than a train. Were they to look to their European neighbors, they would find many countries where road and rail compete or offer complementary services in the long-distance domestic market. England is one such, where the National Express network not only links major cities, but really comes in handy for certain cross-country journeys where there may be no competing direct rail service.
Learning from the East
For a few lessons on road-rail competition, Germans might look over their eastern border to neighboring Poland, where PolskiBus aggressively set out to capture a slice of the domestic leisure travel market, often undercutting the journey time on parallel rail routes. In practice, they have also picked up a loyal following among business travelers too.
Further east in the Baltic States, coaches trump trains as the first choice option on most domestic routes and also for international hops between the Baltic capitals. Regular buses run non-stop from Riga to Tallinn in less than five hours. The once-daily rail connection between the two cities takes more than eight hours, and travelers must change from a Latvian to an Estonian train at the border.
Following the Irish lead
In many peripheral areas of Europe where rail networks are sparse, the coach has long been the preferred means of transport. Comfortable Bus Éireann coaches speed from Sligo to Galway in just 2hrs 45mins. In theory, one might take the train, but it involves a long detour via Dublin and a journey time of over six hours.
Now German travelers will be able to discover that coach transport can be fast, comfortable and safe. Würzburg and Heidelberg are just 90 miles apart. But the fastest train connections between the two cities take well over two hours. A new network of domestic coach services will help plug the gaps in the German rail network.
Liberalization, of the kind that Germans are about to witness, has already transformed coach travel in many parts of Europe. Next week, in our last article for EuroCheapo in 2012, we shall look at a bright new crop of entrepreneurial coach operators providing budget travel between London and the near-Continent.