4. Travel time
5. Border controls
9. Cultural influences
10. The journey as an experience
From 03 July 2015 until 04 August 2015 I went on a trip through Europe to investigate which expectations young people have towards transportation. I travelled through Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Serbia, Croatia, Austria, Slovakia, France and Germany. Apart from bus trips to and from Turkey as well as hitchhiking from France back to Germany, I went by train throughout the entire journey. As my trip primarily included Eastern European countries, most of my conclusions will be based on interviews and observations in this region.
To gain a deeper insight into people's motives I interviewed young travellers as well as locals. In addition to the interviews, I conducted a survey with one hundred young Polish and French participants before the start of my trip in order to already explore some factors in East and West European travel habits. The participants were between 18 and 28 years old and were either currently enrolled in an university or had just started their first job. The survey helped to already give me a rough overview on what preferences in means of transportation and what reasons for their choice they might have. The survey supported the formulation of questions for the semi-structured interviews during the trip.
As I found it interesting to see the differences, I asked locals as well as travellers for their opinion. I decided to summarize the expectations that I gathered into ten categories. In each category, I will explain my observations and discussions based on examples. As sustainable transportation is the focus of this project I take expectations towards trains, the most eco-friendly mean of transport, as a point of departure. From there, I make comparisons to others whenever it is suitable.
My trip began in Poland. On the way to Warsaw I had my first interview with two young women. What they emphasized is the first phenomenon that I would like to point out. There is a significant difference how much information there is available in Eastern and Western European countries. That includes information onboard the trains, for instance regarding delays and upcoming stops, as well as online information concerning routes or ticket prices. My Polish interview partners reported that there is hardly any information on train delays, which are very common, however. I subsequently experienced that in Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria as well. I expected that delays are longer and more common, but how it was dealt with was new to me. People seemed not to require information about it, except for the travellers who were used to receiving respective. Poles who frequently travel to Germany, where there are more information available and less delay, so they perceived, expressed their dissatisfaction with the situation. In Bulgaria and Romania, on the other hand, I experienced train connections to be less reliable than in Poland. And yet, the people that I talked to in these countries often tended to not even expect trains to be on time. Mostly, they did not look for connecting trains in advance but when they arrived at a train station. This observation in Poland is in line with the results of the short survey that I conducted. In comparison, the 40 Poles highly value punctuality and access to information.
Next to that, I was surprised to find out that most railway companies in Eastern Europe do not show a strong online presence. For the Western students that I interviewed, French, Australians, Danes and Germans for instance, it was the most natural thing to not only look up information of their travel online but also to book tickets and make reservations online. Some even stated that they choose their transportation based on whether information are available online so they can book in advance. Of course, travellers from the older generation in both Eastern and Western Europe rather bought tickets at the ticket office. Nonetheless, not only the Western students mentioned above, a large number of young people from different Eastern European countries revealed that a better online accessibility is critical for them. While the Bulgarian and Rumanian railway companies do not even offer information displaying departure times and routes, the websites of some other Eastern European railway companies offer functions for online booking, but no ticket reservation though. As an example, in Turkey even for popular international train routes, such as from Istanbul to Sofia, only very limited information about the departure times and options for reservations are provided.
From the interviews I would therefore conclude that particularly young people, who at least occasionally experience more reliable rail systems where information are available, pose respective expectations. As mobility increases, an increasing number of people will get in touch with Western standards of access to information. Thus, I assume they will require similar standards. As car sharing and car traffic information are equally accessible online, this is something railway organisations ought to pay attention to in the future.
In all countries that I travelled to, except Bulgaria, trains were perceived as the safest means of transportation. However, in the survey the importance of security was ranked 5th out of seven. Hence, it plays a minor role apparently. While bus rides and new means of transportation such as car sharing were sometimes avoided due to their safety standards trains were complimented. The three Bulgarian students who I interviewed noted that they tend to avoid trains especially in the evening due to the strange mix of people that they might encounter. In contrast to other key expectations such as price and speed that could be revealed in my interviews, security is a criterion in which railway scores very high. It primarily results from the low probability of accidents. This is interesting because, on the one hand, it is likely to remain an advantage over car or airplane travel, for instance. On the other hand, quite little attention is paid on that fact when encouraging people to travel by train.
A second aspect that stood out with respect to security in transportation occurred during interviews in Turkey. Newer means of transportation such as car sharing have not yet become as popular as in other European countries. My Turkish host as well as a Turkish girl that I talked to described that cultural habits and the role of men and women in society are central reasons. They explained prosecution of sexual abuse is still very inefficient. Hence, in Turkey a lot of girls would choose not to use car sharing, as they would be afraid of encountering incidents through the driver or other passengers.
Together with price and speed, comfort was generally among the top criteria for young people choosing their mean of transport. In the survey comfort as a reason for choosing transportation on national levels was ranked 2nd out of seven. Particularly in Bulgaria and Romania, travellers as well as locals expressed a strong demand for improvements in trains. A large number of trains are still from the former communistic times. Not only was I told so, I also witnessed how, on a eleven-hours train ride, the disgusting condition of the toilets discouraged the passengers to use them entirely. In addition, regulations such as the smoking ban was ignored by a number of passengers which, as other passengers expressed, compromised their comfort. As a consequence of the lack of comfort, private coach companies can attract travellers with buses that offer extra services as for example a functioning AC. Similarly, private coach companies in Turkey as well as in Germany, France, Denmark and other Western European countries attract younger people by technological advancements. Interviewees mentioned that WIFI access, television, and even free refreshments in Turkey, made them choose the coach.
Furthermore, in several Eastern European countries interviews with foreigners showed that they value English speaking personnel in trains and announcements in English. Again, due to mobility trends, not only nationals but also foreigners will have a major impact on national transportation. That makes information in languages other than the national language critical.
Nevertheless, trains also offer advantages such as the possibility for transporting larger pieces of luggage. As an example, three young Bulgarians who I met were very grateful about the fact that for only little money they are able to take a bike with them in the train. Apparently a lot of young Bulgarians enjoy going on bike trips during the weekend. Besides that, some interview partners mentioned that travelling with children is much more relaxed in trains compared to car or plane etc.
4. Travel time
In terms of travel time, means of transport such as trains and buses show large differences from country to country. The survey that I conducted before the beginning of my trip highlighted that for most young travellers the travel time is an essential aspect that they take into consideration when choosing a mean of transportation. Travel time was ranked third, very close to the second rank.
While in countries such as Romania travellers from larger cities take trains due to the bad road conditions and unreliability of coaches, in its neighbouring country Bulgaria travellers instead choose coaches or their own cars for the opposite reason. Similar to Bulgaria, the people that I met in Turkey and Poland pointed out the railway infrastructure is insufficient to keep up with the travel times of cars or airplanes. In Poland for example, there would be a general lack of investment in tracks. Particularly in rural areas people are forced to take the car since places are disconnected from the rail network or only reachable through detours with increases travel time. In Bulgaria, there would be two highways that connect the bigger cities. Thus, travellers can save half the train ride time by taking the car on those routes. This also indicates that the highlighted observations differ when it comes to trips between smaller or larger cities though. Since countries such as Romania and Bulgaria still only have a limited number of highways these observations can change in regards to trips between small cities.
5. Border controls
Border controls is an issue that came up unexpectedly as it was not taken into consideration in the literature that I read prior to my trip. As an example, it took two to four hours to cross the borders between Ukraine and Hungary or Bulgaria and Turkey. Obviously, the control is more thorough when entering an EU country from a non-EU country. Yet, passport controls on airports take only a fraction of the time me and other travellers spent at the borders. Particularly Western Europeans described it as exhausting because it was not allowed to use the bathrooms during those up to four hours and no information were given on when the train will proceed. When it comes to long distance travels, this becomes even worse as multiple border are to be crossed. The process would be less time-consuming and uncomfortable on airplane travels. Although, this factor might not be so decisive and universally applicable, it seems noteworthy for transportation between EU and non-EU countries, especially for people who frequently cross those borders. While travelling by bus from Burgas to Istanbul for instance I interviewed several of the passengers. Most were complaining about the large amount of time they waste by standing outside at the Turkish border office. However, after some interviewees raised my attention for the issue, I noticed that at some other borders the control went smoother due to the fact that the officials entered the train before the border. Until we reached the border they had checked all passport so there was no or only little time that we spent at the border. Of course, checking the train for unregistered passengers from below, as they did at some borders, will not be possible while the train is moving. However, the suggested procedure might be a way to shorten very long waiting times between some borders.
According to both survey and interviews, the price seemed generally to be the most important of the twelve selected criteria. Incidentally, the term ''price'' was chosen because referring to ''cost'' would not be precise as the term would also include the relative value of time (Zachariadis, 2005). Nevertheless, the price of train tickets plays the major role for young people when choosing which mean of transportation to take. That was exemplified in different ways. In Poland or France for instance the prices of high-speed trains make travellers turn to other means of transportation such as buses or car sharing. In Croatia, though, comparatively much cheaper train tickets attract young travellers.
Furthermore, interviews in France demonstrated the differences between age groups with respect to the use of the TGV. While young people would not choose to take the TGV due to their high prices, middle aged and elderly people who travel between larger cities would pick the TGV over any other means of transport. In an interview in Poland, a similar assessment was made with regard to the high-speed connection between Warsaw and Krakow. Interestingly, the person added that tickets are still very affordable for him and, yet, he does not choose the high-speed connection. According to him, prices are comparatively low since the state subsidises the project. However, he dislikes that the state invests in the high-speed connection as a prestigious object instead of education or other areas where governmental support would be much more needed.
Different train companies already offer student discounts to attract more young travellers. The French students who I interviewed were however not satisfied with the system as they need to pay the full price for the ticket in the first place. There would be refunded the amount of the discount through coupons later. In contrast to the information by the French students, the Croatian students I interviewed were very satisfied with the large discount for students in Croatian trains. My Austrian interview partner explained that discount tickets called “Sparschiene” are very popular among young people. Nonetheless, a far too small number of tickets would be available although trains are not fully booked. Moreover, information on the time when the tickets will be sold would get more young people to use the offer.
A strong advantage of new means of transportation such as car sharing is the large flexibility that comes with it. Before the interviews that I conducted, the survey already revealed the importance of flexibility. A lot of the students who I interviewed in East Europe were complaining about the high prices that arise when booking on a short notice. They often did not want to plan and book their tickets in advance. In Bulgaria where car sharing in Facebook groups already has a large number of young users, students were glad about the benefits of such flexibility, for example the opportunity to go on short weekend trips. Popular destinations for weekend trips to the Black Sea can then be organised spontaneously.
Similarly, spontaneous travels are constrained by availability of train tickets on certain routes as travelling by high-speed trains often requires to make a seat reservation. As an example, TGV tickets from Zurich to Paris can apparently not be booked on the same day. The woman at the ticket office appeared to be surprised that I expected to buy TGV tickets for a journey on the same or the next day...