So what just happened with Britain’s membership of Interrail?

Eurostar. Image: Getty.

The Interrail pass, which allows European citizens to travel around 31 different countries by train and ferry, was first launched in 1972. Since then Europe’s trains have been full of backpackers travelling across the continent from Edinburgh through to Istanbul, using just a single train ticket.

On Wednesday, for the first time in its history, The Rail Delivery Group, the membership body for the British rail industry, announced that, from the start of 2020, interrailers would need separate tickets to travel around Britain. The Eurostar would be only train on British soil on which an interrailing ticket was valid. The RDG also announced that Britain would pull out of Eurail, a scheme which offers an equivalent ticket to non-EU nationals.

However, within 24 hours this decision had been reversed. “Britain’s train companies never wanted to leave interrail,” the RDG claimed.

So why the massive U-turn? And why, if Britain’s train companies never wanted to leave, did the Rail Delivery Group announce that Britain was leaving?


One explanation that’s been put forward is that UK rail firms wanted to stay in Interrail but leave EUrail.

Some background is important here. Historically, the EUrail pass has not covered the British rail network: travellers from outside of Europe have instead been forced to buy an additional Britrail pass to visit Britain. (EU rail passes were briefly trialled in Britain at the start of this year.)

But the European rail authorities recently made the decision to merge the Eurail pass and Interrail pass into a single ticket. That means British rail companies will lose out on the additional revenue gained from the more expensive – and thus more profitable - Britrail tickets.

One reading of the events of this week is that the British rail industry hoped to use the thread of withdrawal from Interail to get its way on not being forced to accept EUrail tickets. If so this backfired, as it led, in effect, to Britain being

kicked out of Interrail – and the climbdown following a public backlash.

(Editor’s note: Is this reminding anyone else of other aspects of the relationship between Britain and Europe? Just me?)

What would have been the consequences if Britain had stopped using interrail?

The decision to leave interrail was met with a huge amount of resistance from both politicians and the public, including transport secretary Grant Shapps

Despite this not being related to leaving the EU & even though it doesn't primarily impact on UK citizens, it will make it harder for everyone else to explore the UK. A COUNTERPRODUCTIVE move in my view & I'm therefore calling on the @RailDeliveryGrp to reverse their decision!

— Grant Shapps MP (@grantshapps) August 8, 2019

Some commentators feared that the decision would unfairly add additional travel costs to those outside of London. Many UK residents would no longer be able to start their interrail journey from their home station, preventing them from travelling abroad using the most convenient route,

In addition, the additional costs would have put visitors to Britain off travelling beyond London, damaging the tourist industry around the country.

This is UK tourism policy in a nutshell. Let all the tourists come to central London, but god forbid someone from abroad might want to see Edinburgh, or Liverpool, or the Yorkshire Moors, or Stratford, or Stonehenge or...

— Ste JM (@stejormur) August 7, 2019

Other critics also referred to the potential impact that this could have on the climate.

This will make more people outside London and the South East fly to continental Europe with the resulting impact on climate emissions.

— Nigel Bagshaw (@nigelbagshaw) August 7, 2019

So what happens now?

Ermm, basically nothing. With the decision reversed it means that all interrailing action should take place as normal. Britons and tourists will now be able to travel freely across the UK and enjoy its many sights.

Seems like:

- UK rail firms wanted to stay in Interrail but leave EUrail, so they could sell more profitable BritRail pass

- EUrail says no, they come as a pair

- UK says ‘lol ok kick us out if u dare’

- EUrail kicks them out

- UK comes crawling back

— Jon Stone (@joncstone) August 8, 2019


What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave

The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.