After a long Corona break, Flixtrain will soon be back on the rails – as DB’s only competitor in long-distance transport. How does he do that?

Challenger: The train company Flixtrain has high hopes for the time after the corona pandemic.

Vhe Corona pandemic caused a standstill for many months at Flixtrain, the private operator of long-distance railway lines. That should change in the coming week. From May 20, the rail competitor wants to run trains again, more often and for longer than before the crisis. “We want to develop a nationwide alternative offer, all metropolitan areas are now connected,” says André Schwämmlein, CEO of the Munich parent company Flixmobility, which is known beyond trains for its frog-green coaches under the Flixbus brand.

Compared to the offer that Flixmobility has been making to travelers since 2013, i.e. since the liberalization of the long-distance bus market on the road, rail transport is still developing. Flixtrain competes with just nine trains painted green against more than 300 ICE trains operated by Deutsche Bahn. Now, however, new long-distance routes are to be added to the timetable. From May 27th, Flixtrain will run up to eight times a day between Leipzig, Berlin and Hamburg – and thus on those routes on which Deutsche Bahn ICE trains run on average every half an hour during the day. “We fit into the half-hourly cycle,” says Schwämmlein.

Flixtrain open-plan compartment
Flixtrain open-plan compartment: Image: Flixtrain

In addition, the Flixtrain trains will also run to and from Munich, from June 17th even on a night connection between the Bavarian capital, Berlin and Hamburg. Further connections are in preparation, it is said. A total of around 40 cities are on the timetable, as many as with the sister brand Flixbus. Flixmobility is a so-called platform company that does not have its own buses or trains, but takes on network planning and marketing for partner companies. While the group has made great strides on the road, has bought up a number of other long-distance bus companies and has now practically a monopoly, on the rails it encounters a competitor who is practically a monopoly in long-distance transport itself. DB has an estimated 99 percent market share on long routes. In the past, railway companies had repeatedly tried to compete with the state-owned company. But whether they were called Interconnex, Locomore or HKX – they all failed.

So far, competitors have only been successful in regional transport

One of the reasons for this is that long-distance train operators have to travel entirely on their own account. A large provider like Deutsche Bahn, on the other hand, benefits from network effects that a “newcomer” has to do without. So far, DB competitors have only been successful in regional transport with its tenders. There they have a market share of one third, while the formerly dominant rail subsidiary DB Regio still has two thirds. This development reflects the fact that train operators in regional traffic can hope for public support with their tendering model, i.e., unlike in long-distance traffic, operation is not entirely self-sufficient.

Nevertheless, Flixtrain has so far been able to hold its own with its still very modest offer – probably also because the sister company of the bus operator can point to some advantages. First of all, on industry experience: In 2017, Flixtrain took over the failed provider Locomore and thus its rail expertise. In addition, the train provider can rely on the online platform and the sales power of Flixbus. In addition to financial reasons, industry experts repeatedly cited the inadequate connection to the DB booking system as a reason for the failure of Locomore. In addition, Flixtrain and Flixbus are ultimately not a transport company, but rather a transport operator without their own vehicles. The greater business risk therefore lies with the partner companies handling the operation.

Nevertheless, Flixmobility is of course one of the corona losers. Some of the bus partner companies are threatened with bankruptcy. And the 40 cities in the timetable are only a faint reflection of old greatness. Because before the pandemic, the green buses drove to ten times as many cities. Nonetheless, founder Schwämmlein is confident: “We are through the valley through Germany.”