Delta Goes Deeper Into Intermodal with New European Train Partners


All the cool kids are doing it. Whether it’s Landline in the US or Deutsche Bahn joining Star Alliance, airlines are increasingly looking toward intermodal options to help fill their airplanes with connecting traffic. Delta started its so-called Air+Rail plan last year, and now it’s adding a whole bunch of new partners and destinations to the program.

When the Air+Rail program began, it involved just two destinations, connecting travelers in Amsterdam to both Antwerp and Brussels in Belgium. The initial connection was with Thalys, and though the partnership was described as “seamless,” it really is not. This isn’t like what Landline aspires to have where it’s like connecting in the terminal to another flight. This is really just making the booking process seamless while the operation remains pretty much as it is for anyone else buying a separate train and plane ticket.

On the ground, travelers still have to check in separately for flights and trains, and bags need to be claimed upon arrival in the airport for the traveler to transfer over to the train (and vice versa). The real benefit is that Delta can sell a single ticket all the way to the destination. That’s particularly helpful when the flight or train is delayed, because it means the airline will be responsible for providing another way to the destination when connecting between plane and train. It also helps when there’s a big schedule change.

Of course, this is just about as good as you could hope for in a train-plane connection. It’s highly unlikely that anyone is going to build rail to go into the terminal area, especially since it would require having a secure train that wouldn’t be a good option for those not connecting to a plane.

For Delta, the initial partnership made a lot of sense, because Belgium is in a weird spot geographically since the airline’s main partners have hubs not far away. Brussels has no service to Paris on Air France while KLM does have a handful of flights a day from Amsterdam. But having the train opens up far more connecting opportunities through the day. And Antwerp has no commercial service from Delta or its partners.

Now, the mission has expanded. There are five new partners added to the program last week:

  • SBB at Zurich and Geneva Airports
  • SNCB at Brussels Airport
  • SJ at Stockholm Arlanda Airport
  • TransPennine Express at Manchester Airport
  • Trenitalia at Rome/Fiumicino Airport

These five operators will add 37 new destinations in total. I took a look at the summer route map from both Atlanta and Boston+JFK to Europe and then layered on the connections here.

Data via Cirium, Original Map via GCMap

The destinations are primarily small ones. And when you see so many different destinations, it’s just because trains stop multiple places along the way. For example, that train going north from Arlanda will stop in Uppsala, Gävle, Söderhamn, Hudiksvall, and Sundsvall. That’s 5 destinations — that, I understand, are actual places with people in them — with one train. You’ll also get Norrköping and Linköping, the apparent köping twins, on another line. And you can’t forget Avesta Krylbo, Borlänge, Falun, Hedemora, Leksand, Mora, Östersund, and Sala. I’m pretty sure at least one of those was just a test to see if I’d confirm they all existed.

Of all these, Linköping may be the most interesting, because KLM actually serves that up to twice a day already. The problem is the flights from Amsterdam are in the afternoon/evening, so connectivity from US early morning arrivals isn’t very good. The train can help.

In other cities, the trend is similar, though generally smaller in scale.

  • SBB: Geneva – Bern, Lausanne, Sion
  • SBB: Zurich – Basel, Bern, Chur, Grenchen, Lausanne, Luzern, St Gallen
  • SNCB: Brussels – Breda and Rotterdam (both in the Netherlands)
  • TransPennine Express: Manchester – Edinburgh, Glasgow, Lancaster, Preston, Sheffield, York
  • Trenitalia: Rome – Bologna, Florence, Naples, Padua

There are really two types of markets here. There are the small ones that have no airplane service, so it’s a new market for Delta. Then there are the places like Edinburgh and Bologna which have service but not nearly enough of it. In the former, it’s the backtracking and infrequent flight options to get to Edinburgh via the Continent. In the latter, there may be ample service, but there are still plenty of people who will just fly into Rome and then take the train on their own. Delta can snag some of that.

The participating airports have a very clear pattern. These are all in cities with an integrated train station at the airport itself. And of course, they are cities where Delta flies… except Manchester which is served by Virgin Atlantic through the joint venture between the two airlines.

For that reason, prospects of this happening in the US are slim to none. Newark is the only hub with a train station connected to the airport, and it didn’t do much for United since it ended the Amtrak partnership. Then there are smaller opportunities at Baltimore, Burbank, and Milwaukee. Maybe the new Brightline service to Orlando will add a little value, but probably not. The US just isn’t build for good air/rail connectivity.

Instead, Delta is more concerned about getting people on the other end. I do think it’s interesting to note that of the places where Delta is adding connectivity, two of the airports are two of Delta’s newest: Geneva and Stockholm. These are probably routes that will be on the weaker side and will benefit from any additional traffic that can be fed by the railroads. That’s especially true since Delta isn’t using 757s but rather the larger 767s in these markets.

In the end, I don’t imagine we’re going to see any huge numbers coming off these trains, but if it’s even a couple of passengers a day that wouldn’t have otherwise flown Delta and partners, then it’s definitely a win. Just filing through fares might help get to that point. More importantly, Delta is making sure to build the infrastructure it needs to be able to expand this program as future intermodal options become available. At least, we can all hope that they become available.

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32 comments on “Delta Goes Deeper Into Intermodal with New European Train Partners

  1. I don’t see anything on your map at London-Gatwick or Copenhagen, despite these airports having good train service into the airport… wondering why DL could not strike a deal

    1. Gatwick doesn’t have Delta service (though I see it’s starting a seasonal JFK flight next year), and the train service there is mostly commuter-type rail, not the longer-distance trains (importantly, with fixed reservations) where a codeshare makes sense. If train tickets are mostly or entirely flexible, as they typically are on Gatwick service, a codeshare isn’t so important.

  2. There’s a great YouTube channel called “Not Just Bikes” that is about mobility in Amsterdam. There was a recent video about how the country is served with both regional as well as high-speed trains that cover the entire country with no less than 30-minute service every day.

    It’s all in English as the creator is from London… Ontario Canada that is. Otherwise known as “fake London.”

  3. From my experience using UA and their intermodal model, for some connections, the price to connect to rail is actually cheaper than buying a plane ticket. For example, I wanted to fly into BRU but discovered that by using the Antwerp code (ZWE), it knocked $600 off the ticket. So instead of flying into BRU, I’m now flying into AMS and connected via train.

  4. So, to get to the Netherlands, they’re teaming up with the Belgian railways? I did a short check of travel times.

    Schiphol (AMS) – Rotterdam Central Station: 25 minutes average (trains every 10 mins)
    Zaventem (BRU) – Rotterdam Central Station: 1h25 average (trains every 30 mins)

    Schiphol – Breda: 52 minutes (trains every 15 minutes)
    Zaventem – Breda: 1h07 minutes (one train every hour)

    I really don’t understand these choices…

    1. I suspect it has to do with who Delta was able to strike a deal with. Cranky mentions the original agreement at AMS was with the international train operator Thalys. And the new agreements to Dutch destinations are with the Belgian operator SNCB. For domestic trains from Schiphol, they’d need an agreement with the Dutch domestic operator NS.

  5. The Transpennine Express also services Leeds (airport: LBA), the second largest city and second largest financial hub in the UK and important University and sports town.

    What strikes me as odd is that most TP Express destinations are also serviced by Skyteam Partner KLM. I understand the argument that having a train service offers more potential passengers booking on DL. But… would they not be served by a KL/Cityhopper/AF or other flight. Skyteam are good at banking at Schiphol and CDG so the likelyhood of not arriving or departing within a reasonable amount of time to your connecting flight seems small.

    1. …when KLM doesn’t outright cancel your flight for reasons and then assign you a significantly negative connecting time.

      The AMS operation is a mess right now. “Connecting” intermodally to avoid it isn’t the worst idea.

    2. CLT Flyer – Leeds is not one of the destinations offered by Delta on this thing. Edinburgh and Glasgow are, but I’m guessing DL doesn’t get great traffic via Amsterdam on those routes so they are trying to provide more options.

    3. Flying from the USA to Leeds via Amsterdam involves a significant amount of backtracking by air. Flights between Amsterdam and Leeds are 2x or 3x daily… and Leeds airport is at least 40 mins by road from Leeds centre.
      Fom Manchester airport to Leeds centre, direct trains without changes are hourly and take 1h30… or you can drive in 1h30
      For pax travelling between Leeds and the USA with Delta, going via Manchester is likely to be significantly faster on most days

  6. Can we just give it up to Brett for another stellar graphic? Ed Bastian as Thomas the Tank engine … classic (and way more entertaining than the actual show, dad life)! Thanks for making me smile with that one.

  7. Lausanne is mispelled. Now it makes sense that DL is adding JFK-GVA. Love the TWA inspired route map with arrows.

    This all is partly due to moves in the EU to curb short haul flights and shift to railways, which in Europe, are a superior and much better way to get around in some instances.

  8. Intermodal longhaul transportation including air travel makes all the sense in the world. It will not likely involve the US because the US doesn’t have a well-developed, frequent train system and virtually no longhaul trains inside airport terminals. Europe and some major Asian cities do have it and it makes sense to partner where possible. These relationships are not and should not be exclusive to any airline.
    Rail partnerships help connect city centers to longhaul flights; not many European airports have longhaul intercity train routes – many are connected to the city center where longhaul train routes run.
    And there is an environmental dimension to all of this. Airlines, rightly or not, are considered to be environmentally “bad” while rail is seen as better off and certainly is for short distances. Add in resistance to short haul flights in both France and the Netherlands and Delta needed to act.
    And, yes, Delta’s additions add some small cities enroute to or from major airports but a number of European countries have only one or two major cities and lots of smaller cities.
    Hopefully, not just Delta’s intermodal network will grow in Europe but the same will be true of other airlines – US and European – and the model will be replicated in other parts of the world.
    and, in the US, we will just keep rebuilding airport terminals and provide more electric car charging capabilities and urban alternative fuel buses.

  9. “Avesta Krylbo, Borlänge, Falun, Hedemora, Leksand, Mora, Östersund”

    I’m pretty sure I own all of those furniture pieces from IKEA.

  10. Don’t be so harsh on U.S. intermodal connections. Even Miami and Fort Lauderdale have train stations right by the airport. Of course, these are served by commuter rail so there’s not likely to be any through ticketing, but they’re still pretty good intermodal options for going up and down the coast.

      1. They are also currently in the process of moving the terminus of both the Silver Star and Silver Meteor from Hialeah to the Miami International Airport intermodal center. Brightline serves downtown Miami, Fl Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach

  11. I’d like to see more intermodal cooperation. Your recent adventure in Windsor and Detroit shows there’s a need for more cooperation among the various transportation providers. But as usual, it’s about cost versus benefit, and the cost may simply be too high in many places to make it work.

  12. It’s not only about the end points. One advantage of trains and busses is the ease of serving multiple intermediate destinations. How many flights would it take to connect all the possible combinations of destinations along the U.S. northeast corridor?

  13. Not sure of the practicality of this. Using a train connection is going to take significantly longer and add unnecessary complexity.
    Many of these destinations are already served by an air connection, which makes much more sense.

    For example, Trenitalia runs just 1 daily train on the Rome-Florence-Bologna-Padua route leaving at 1:53 pm. So the earliest possible arrival in Bologna is 4:58 pm. However, connecting on KLM over AMS puts you in Bologna at 12:30 (leaving at same time from JFK)–with less hassle and a slightly lower cost. And traveling west from Bologna to JFK via a train connection is not possible without an overnight in FCO, since the train doesn’t arrive until 2:07 pm.

    Similarly, connecting to Basel over CDG gets in at 10:20 am vs. 2:24 pm using a train connection from ZRH.

    The AMS connection for Linkoping (from JFK) is actually really good–1:25 layover, vs nearly 4 hours to wait for the train in ARN. Both put you in Linkoping a little after 1:30, but catching the train requires departing JFK 2:45 earlier (5:15 vs 7:30).

    Whether flying or taking the train for the connecting leg, you still need to arrange ground transportation at the destination. My experience in Europe (which is extensive) is that arranging ground transportation from the airport is much easier than at the train station. If the destination doesn’t have an aiport (e.g. Padua), it’s easiest to just arrange ground transportation from the closest airport (e.g. from VCE for Padua).

    1. Bravenav – your note on trains from Rome to Padua could be misleading. Since there are lots of options – there is more than hourly service. So locking your journey in to the “preferred” Trenitalia would result in a less than acceptable option.
      Delta will need to do a lot more to make this an acceptable option!

      1. Yes, you could take connecting trains to get about anywhere in Italy, but there is exactly one daily same-train service from FCO to Florence, Bologna, and Padua.

  14. I think it’s important to remember that each trip will probably be unique, and the way one chooses to abridge the distance from one’s starting point to one’s destination will tend to vary depending on what’s available and how convenient and expensive the choices are. I would also point out that flying and renting a car at one’s destination is an intermodal trip. No public/mass transportation mode can beat the convenience of getting into one’s car and driving from door to door. But that’s not always possible or desirable. There’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution that will apply to every trip or resolve all transportation issues.

    1. Perhaps worth remembering that in Europe, fuel for cars is taxed much more heavily than the USA. In Europe, travelling long distances by train is much more common than the USA where everybody drives everywhere

      1. The distances also tend to be shorter in Europe, which makes the train more competitive time wise. The passenger rail infrastructure in Europe is much more extensive than it is here both for that reason, and the fact that Europe is more densely populated than most of the U.S. High speed rail can make sense here in densely populated areas like the northeast corridor. But there’s no way to make a train trip from Chicago to Los Angeles time competitive with a flight, even with the kinds of high speed trains found in France, Japan, or China.

  15. In the UK, I would put considerable value on Delta being on the hook if your train is delayed or cancelled given the strikes etc currently happening there

    1. Trains’ on-time performance & reliability (and the bus replacement services when the trains break down or can’t run) have been frequent fodder on British comedy shows for many years.

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