Cross-border travel information with EU-Spirit from Germany
Verkehrsverbund Berlin-Brandenburg GmbH (VBB) is Germany’s largest association in terms of area. It is a municipal association owned by the Federal States of Berlin and Brandenburg as well as the cities and districts in Brandenburg. Forty transport companies across VBB’s area offer their services to approximately six million residents and many more visitors to Germany’s capital region. To improve public transport, VBB is cooperating with its neighbouring regions (the surrounding Federal States of Germany) and also the western part of Poland.
Europe is growing together
The European Union is bringing together all countries across the whole continent. One of the most important aspects (known as the Schengen Agreement) was the opening of the borders between EU Member States. The citizens of the Member States benefit a lot from travelling throughout Europe without being stopped at the borders. The result is not really surprising: people are more and more travelling cross-border; for daily commuting as well as for vacation travel. Today, cross-border travel is a part of everyday life for millions of citizens in the EU.
Analysing cross-border travel leads to one specific result: it is always the people’s next border which they are most likely to cross. The reason for that is simple: during a year, daily commuting or weekend leisure trips take place more often than going on holiday or on long-distance business trips. This fact has a certain implication for stakeholders in the travel market. Cross-border activities should have a strong focus on each direct neighbouring region.
Strengthening public transport by providing travel information
The percentage of cross-border travel made by public transport compared to journeys made by private cars is still not as high as it could be. There have been a lot of improvements made for cross-border public transport during recent years. New connections have been introduced and fare systems have been extended to cover whole cross-border journeys with only one ticket. Those are the basic prerequisites for cross-border public transport travel. But this is not enough. Passengers can only use a connection when they know that it exists. Although this is quite a simple statement, it implies two things:
- A special marketing campaign is necessary when introducing new public transport connections.
- A continuous information service has to be available where passengers can get any information they need for their journey.
In ideal terms this information has to be as individual as possible (keeping in mind for example that individual car navigation was one big innovation having made cross-border car journeys quite easy).
Web-based information services for cross-border journeys
Over recent years, web-based travel planning services have become very popular in the context of public transport. Many regional authorities, public transport operators and even private companies are running such services. Passengers heavily use the services so that they can always be up-to-date and so they can plan their journeys (also in case of delays and disturbances). Therefore, the obvious strategy for information on cross-border public transport services would be to use these existing web-based services (for example, VBB’s travel planning tool called ‘VBB-Fahrinfo’) and to connect them with each other.
How to connect information services
The question how to connect such web services leads to two general technical approaches:
- Take the timetable data that is in each travel planning service and copy it into one big central data pool (data pooling), or;
- Establish technical connections in the background of each travel planning service so that they can exchange route information with each other automatically in real-time (distributed approach).
Data pooling seems to be the initial easiest way. But you shouldn’t forget that copying the data has to be carried out regularly whenever timetables change. Data pooling also has certain limitations providing real-time, disturbances and fare information (this information can’t be pooled completely). However, the distributed approach needs much less maintenance efforts during the operation and guarantees the availability of up-to-date timetable data at any time without manual efforts during the operation.
EU-Spirit as a solution
That was the reason why the decision was made towards the distributed approach when the first European project started to deal with cross-border journey planning for public transport. In 1998, EU-Spirit was born as a Research and Development project within the 5th Framework Programme of the European Union. EU-Spirit technically installed standardised APIs to each participating travel planning system and connected them to a central component. The central component’s job was to manage all journey requests by identifying start / destination area and then splitting-up the journey request to each travel planning system which has (at least: partial) information for the requested route. Each system delivers the relevant information it has and passes it back to the central component where all partial information is combined to a complete journey. The complete result is given back to the system where the initial request came from and which can display it to the passenger who asked for the route. In cases where the start and destination area are not direct neighbours, a long-distance information server serves railway and flight connections between those regions.
The big advantage of this system concept is that the existing travel planning services can still be used by the customers (in terms of potential passengers) who do not have to learn a new system. VBB was partner in the EU-Spirit network from the earliest beginning of the 5th EU Framework project (1998-2001).
At the end of the project a very important infrastructure event took place: the opening of the so-called Öresund Bridge between Denmark and southern Sweden. From that time onwards, cross-border traffic between both countries increased rapidly which resulted in an increase in demand for cross-border travel planning. The EU-Spirit project partners from Denmark1 and southern Sweden2 were in-charge of continuing the service which was developed in the project. From that time EU-Spirit continued over the formal end of the EU project and is still today continuously operated and financed by the EU-Spirit partners.
Nowadays, EU-Spirit has partners from Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Luxemburg, France, Finland and Germany and the network is still growing. Like any other organisation which goes beyond a certain size, some formal structures are needed. As a result, the EU-Spirit partners decided to meet regularly for strategy discussions and decisions as well as to have a coordinator who is responsible for any formal tasks. It is VBB’s pleasure to serve as EU-Spirit’s coordinator since the continuous operation after the projects end started. Since then, an extension to VBB-Fahrinfo called ‘VBB-Fahrinfo Europe’ has been added and now the whole EU-Spirit network is accessible for customers.
Projects involving EU-Spirit
During recent years there have been several other European funded projects which made use of the EU-Spirit technology and which continued the idea of distributed cross-border journey planning. VBB, as the EU-Spirit coordinator, was involved (among others) in the following projects:
This was an ERDF project for Real-Time Passenger Information in the area of the river Odra partnership. E-Kom provided the basis for the interconnection between VBB’s area and western Poland. An intensive cooperation started with the City of Poznań and the private Polish information service provider, Jakdojade.pl, which provides up-to-date public transport timetable information and travel planning services for the big Polish cities and agglomerations. Today, the Jakdojdae.pl services for Poznań, Łódź and Biłystok are available in the EU-Spirit network. Other regions are planned to be integrated and available soon.
Rail Baltica Growth Corridor (RBGC)
This was an INTERREG IVB project that improved the accessibility and competiveness of the eastern Baltic Sea region along the corridor from Berlin via Poznań–Warsaw–the Baltic States towards Helsinki. Concerning VBB’s cooperation with Polish partners, the RBGC project continued the work of e-Kom. Furthermore, RBGC established EU-Spirit’s partnership with Finland where the national service provider matka.fi joined the network. Additionally, to improve the long-distance connection between EU-Spirit partner regions, RBGC made timetables of Baltic Sea ferries available in EU-Spirit and extended the railway timetables to whole Europe by using UIC Merits data on behalf of the Danish State Railway (DSB) who has been an EU-Spirit partner for years.
The RBGC ad-on package, ‘Andockprojekt’
This was funded by German government and provided the basis to bring EU-Spirit ahead in many other regions and helping those regions to grow more and more together. Besides VBB’s partnership towards Poland there is the so-called Grand Région (area of north-eastern France, south-western Germany, Luxemburg and Belgium).
In the Grand Région, an additional INTERREG project was introduced dealing with the topic of how to bring together the four countries. Today there is significant commuter traffic by public transport in this area. To make commuting (and also all other kinds of trips) by public transport more convenient, a cross-border information service for public transport will be set-up. This service will be based on the existing services of the participating regions based on EU-Spirit.
In Scandinavia there are current plans to integrate Norway in the EU-Spirit network. Together with the partners from Denmark and Sweden (and the new partner from Finland) the network would cover the whole of Scandinavia. This would underline the strong partnership among the four Scandinavian countries.
Cross-border travel planning services are well-developed and provide reliable and helpful information for customers. This is currently carried-out by route planning tools. But technology is moving forward and, especially by the broad availability of smartphones, travel information during a trip is getting more and more important. Apps, at least for iOS and Android, are nowadays a must-have and an important extension of regular web-based services. This shift from web to mobile started in the local areas and will continue on cross-border trips (in VBB’s area there are now more customer requests to the travel planner sent by mobile phones then sent by regular stationary internet). So, one of the obvious next steps is to integrate cross-border travel planning services into mobile applications of the EU-Spirit partners.
But there is still one aspect that might be an obstacle in the near future. Smartphone users usually have to pay a lot for mobile internet access outside their home network. So, smartphone usage abroad might still be a bit expensive. Another idea to provide on-trip cross-border information for passengers is to bring the information directly into the vehicles. Flat screens have become affordable and are nowadays widely used in public transport. A flat screen in a bus or train can display connections at the next station – also in real-time. The data supply for such flat screens is carried-out by the local authorities or transport operators. To also have this information available in neighbouring regions for cross-border journeys, the background systems have to be connected. Here, the EU-Spirit technology provides a promising base to improve customer information even more.
Jürgen Roß studied Planning and Operation of Public Transport at the Technical University in Berlin and graduated in engineering. He began his career in the Operations Department at Frankfurter Verkehrs- und Tarifverbund (FVV). From 1983 to 1998, he worked with Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG) – the biggest public transport company in Germany – starting in the Bus Operations Department and as an Assistant to the Board of Management before he worked as Deputy Head of the Planning and Development Department. Jürgen has been working at Verkehrsverbund Berlin-Brandenburg GmbH since 1998. He takes the responsibility for planning and development concepts and projects for the integrated public transport network in VBB’s area.