Intercity : some of the best practices in Europe
Analysis of - Signalling technician and railways observer
(version en français)
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A recent debate in France has shown the difficulty in countries that do not practice, to define the market segment in which to classify the so-called Intercity trains. A brief overview of the European's practices allows therefore to clarify the issue.

A brief history
Launched in the early 1960s, the brand was created by BR to highlight its long-distance and express passenger services, and it came to dominate long-distance railway travel. InterCity-branded services were to be seen throughout the whole BR network. Germany followed suit in September 1971, with four lines where the trains were clocked every two hours under the name "F" (Fernverkehr, F-Zug). In both cases, we must recognize that the spatiality of cities and the national geography have greatly assisted the establishment of these networks. By contrast, other countries continued their policy of express trains with a variety of rolling stock, especially in France where the Parisian centralism drew the rail traffic.

The concept of Intercity, whose the English name was adopted unchanged in Germany, had two advantages. The first is on marketing side, since customers can easily memorize each "hour" of departure of their station, without having to consult the timetable book. The second advantage allowed the operation of these trains with fixed and identical rolling stock, throughout the day and all day of the year, in despite some exceptions. It was possible to offer a perfectly linear service without having to undertake countless exceptions that characterized the railways of 'yesterday'. The concept has an 'industrial side', which perfectly suits its time, the 70's. Some stations also adopt a modernist design ...

An international version was adopted on 1 May 1980 with Euro-City, when he was sure that the luxurious Trans-Europ-Express trains  would be having to disappear, which was the case in 1987. The idea was to set standards quality of rolling stock, such as air conditioning and catering. The concept still persists today in the German-Alpine countries and in eastern countries. The arrival of high-speed saw the instauration of two concepts. While Germany, with his ICE, and Italy, with his ERT500, retained the same marketing concept provided for the "classic" trains, SNCF chose to opt for specialization with a completely new marketing that was superimposed on the classical national marketing. This choice is one of the causes of the current debate at the SNCF, which could never to give a real place for his "corail" train in his marketing. United-Kingdom, which don't have the high speed train except Eurostar, has always pursued its policy of hourly Intercity, even after privatization and the franchising of long-distance services.

Some little countries with a dense network have also built a hourly or a half-hourly intercity concept, but on a regional scale, since many decades, such the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and of course, Switzerland. In this last country, all Eurocity trains are integrated into the national hourly service and they have not a specific ticketing, except maybe some surcharges. What is the current situation ?

The example is easy. The main lines are now all franchised. Marketing is therefore specific from each operator, although with similarities. The rolling stock is the same throughout the day and the services operated by specific routes, based on a hour or half-hourly timetable, as shown below. The best-known operators are for example First Great Western, Midland Mainline and of course, the iconic Virgin. The first two companies use still the indestructible and famous HST 125, while others have completely renewed their fleet with Pendolino (Class 390, Alstom), Super Voyagers (class 221 Bombardier) or Adelante (class 180 Alstom). All compositions are fixed and the Intercity segment is since many decades in competition with the long-distance bus.

The WCML - Wset Coast Main Line - is under franchise of Virgin, which operates a fleet of Pendolino 390 from London to Glasgow (photo by Matt Thorpe via flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Video HST 125    Video Pendolino 390

As the network possess high speed lines, it has however not ousted its classic Intercity, far from it. Better, the livery of the classical rolling stock has mutated to the same livery of the ICE to provide a single whole: the long-distance service without distinction of marketing or technology. The classic rolling stock uses the excellent german's cars class A or Bpmz, with European gauge Z, and all trains have in most cases a dining car. The compositions are fixed throughout the year and regularly cross borders, to Switzerland, Austria and Hungary. This segment has been recently attacked by bus long distances, which are liberalized since 2013.

From Netherlands to Germany : locomotive class 1739 from NS with the IC 143 (Amsterdam Centraal - Berlin Ostbahnhof) on 27 september 2014. German's cars A et Bpmz, en livrée "ICE" et qui passent les frontières sans problèmes ( photo de PatrickvH. via flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)
The country also has high-speed rail services with its concept Frecciarossa but outside of high speed, Trenitalia has also created 58 Frecciargento routes that connect every hour Rome to Verona and Venice, and to a lesser extent toward the South of Italy, using a fleet of ETR 485 and 610. Beyond this there exist a third category of intercity, the 86 Frecciabianca routes, which form the classic network, such as on the route Turin to Venice or from Venice to Ancona . They are operated using conventional cars class BZ or Z, hauled by E402B locomotives or by ETR 460/463. These three services "Freccia" have their own web page but form a whole and offer a consistency in the Italian long-distance policy, whatever their status, high speed train or not.

Trenitalia and his "Frecciabianca", intercity trains hauled by E402B, displaying the label (photo from Marco 56 via flickr CC BY 2.0)

Austria has also a clocked long distance service and a small section at 230km / h. The service is now mainly composed of conventional Intercity and especially Railjet. This latter may be currently considered as being the european number one of hauled trains. Railjet and Intercity connect the main cities of Austria with Vienna at a rate of one train per hour, as shown in the map below. Some Railjet services are extended outside the country, toward Budapest and Munich or with the 7 round trips to the Czech Republic between Graz, Vienna, Brno and Prague, one train every two hours. The rolling stock of Railjet is completely new and the compositions present a fixed set : a stylish Taurus locomotive class 1116 and seven cars (all made by Siemens). Two trains can be coupled to form a train of fourteen vehicles and two locomotives. The route Vienna-Salzburg is competed since December 2011 by the new entrant Westbahn, operating 13 round trips per day (17 at the end of the weekend), strictly clocked as shown below:

Czech Republic
Generally, it would not be expected that intercity train services exist in the countries of the East. However, the national railway company ČD operates a clocked service but not always at the same minutes, on the route between Prague and Ostrava, one hour by conventional Intercity train, and the other hour by Pendolino 680 (Alstom). By contrast, the route Prague-Vienna-Graz managed under the Railjet label, as mentioned above, is strictly clocked every two hours, for his insertion on the hourly Austrian intercity. The Czech service is completed by two competitors on the route Prague-Ostrava. Leo Express operates some Stadler First trainsets but has not a strictly clocked timetable, unlike to Regiojet who has a clocked service of 10 round trips as shown below.

CD railways operates both Pendolino (on left photo CD) and Railjet trainsets for international services, identical to the austrian Railjet (photo on right from Tim Adams via flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Intercity in Europe presents some different cases but with similar ways. Its strengths are the systematisation of timetables and the rolling stock. Their niche are the long-distance routes, whether at high speed or not, or partially. The marketing of these trains is included into a coherent whole, as in Austria or in Italy, where the product "Intercity" is included in a ticketing whole without being relegated in a special commercialisation. Intercity is not a secondary product but it is inserted into the marketing of all transport long distances.