DB & Google Transit & the best laid plans of mice & men

Published March 16, 2015

Rome2rio CTO Bernie Tschirren and I have just returned from a couple of weeks in Europe; we visited Amadeus at their grand campus on the Cote d’Azur, attended the ITB conference in Berlin, and met with a number of companies in Paris. On the in-between weekend Bernie headed to The Netherlands while I visited friends in Italy.

All that travel was made easier by journey planning on Rome2rio — no surprise there — but we also took the opportunity to see what our friends at Google would suggest for our travels. And that, as they say in the classics, is quite a story!

There was quite a stir back in 2012 with the announcement of an exclusive data sharing deal between German Railways (DB) and Google. DB defended that decision in an open letter, saying (forgive the translation if it’s not quite perfect) “The quality of information for our customers is our top priority here.” By that, we assume DB meant that the schedule data must be displayed carefully and in line with various protocols that ensure customers are always seeing accurate, timely information. Restricting distribution of the data to a single partner, Google, was DB’s way of making the data more readily available to consumers while at the same time maintaining control over the quality.

Or so they thought. Check out this Google Transit result for “Amsterdam to Paris”:

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 4.36.06 pm

Amsterdam to Paris via Cologne and Frankfurt? Eight hours? I don’t think so! I suspect that seeing one of their services proposed for this route is actually quite an embarrassment for the folks at DB. They entrusted their schedule data to Google to ensure just this sort of ham-fisted result wouldn’t occur, and here is their chosen partner doing exactly what they were trying to avoid. Of course the correct result for this journey is the excellent Thalys high-speed train, a direct service that takes just over three hours.

The wildly inappropriate use of DB routes doesn’t end there. For my trip from Turin to Paris, Google proposed a scenic, 22-hour route that included back-tracking to Milan, meandering through Switzerland, a handful of train changes in Germany, and… well, you get the idea. Here’s Google Transit’s suggestion:

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 4.38.38 pm

Goodness me! Twenty hours, seven train changes… DB had sought to protect travelers from seeing poor quality information on 3rd party sites, but surely didn’t imagine that its schedules, even in cases like this where they are displayed quite accurately, could form part of such a bad result for users. They could be forgiven for feeling let down by Google, who don’t appear to be holding up their end of the bargain.

Anyway, back to my travels. I took the more obvious solution, the direct TGV service from Turin to Paris, which runs five times each day and really is a delightful, low-stress way to travel from Italy to the French capital. While on board, I poked around in Google Transit a little more. I found all sorts of routes where, rather than display no results — which might be a better option for their users — Google is displaying similarly inappropriate results along with this disclaimer:

“These results may be incomplete – not all transit agencies in this area have provided their info.

While some operators have joined DB in sharing data with Google — OBB (Austria) and SBB (Switzerland), for example — others, including France’s SNCF, have not. Laying the blame on the holdouts seems a little unfair, and is unlikely to convince any that they should play ball. All of this is clearly an argument for more data openness; after all, the sky hasn’t yet fallen in the UK, the Netherlands or Sweden, all places where government has legislated for public access to all transport data.

We hope the industry sees another lesson here: closed, exclusive arrangements deprive consumers of the benefits that flow from open markets. Making schedule data available to all comers, including highly focused and innovative startups like Rome2rio, Wanderio, GoEuro, FromAtoB and others will always lead to better outcomes for consumers than exclusive arrangements with corporate giants. The proof is out there, plain to see.

Rod Cuthbert

Written by
Executive Chairman of Rome2rio
Rome2rio, based in Melbourne, Australia, is organising the world’s transport information. We offer a multi-modal, door-to-door travel search engine that returns itineraries for air, train, coach, ferry, mass transit and driving options to and from any location. Discover the possibilities at rome2rio.com