Dutch train tickets are not cheap. A way to save money is to opt for a 7 euro NS Group ticket. No wonder Facebook group NS group-tickets Groningen is a popular platform for purchasing these tickets. However, railway operator NS regards this practice as illegal and wants to stop it.
NS group-tickets Groningen is an extremely popular Facebook group, it has nearly 13,000 members. The group is well known among international students who want to travel cheaply. Via this group they find other travellers to buy an NS Group ticket with. This is a ticket for four to ten passengers, who are travelling to or from the same place. The more people travel on one ticket, the cheaper the individual contribution. Regardless of your destination, your personal ticket costs about fourteen Euro when you buy a ticket with three others. When your group consists of ten people, you pay only seven Euro each. But how often does a person actually travel in a group of ten? The Facebook group solves this problem by bringing people together who happen to be travelling to or from Groningen on the same date.
Travelling in a group alone
Via the Facebook group, users mention dates on which they want to travel and enquire about existing travel groups for these dates. If there are ten people that want to travel to or from Groningen on one specific date, one of the group members buys the NS Group ticket for the entire group. Once this is done, the other nine group members are supposed to transfer the money for their individual ticket to the buyer. After the buyer receives the money, he or she sends the other group members an activation code for their personal ticket. Once this all has been organized, all the group members can travel separately at different times of the day, without ever having seen any of the other group members in person.
NS, the principle passenger railway operator in the Netherlands, is not happy with this practice.
At the end of 2015, the company requested the administrators of the Facebook group to delete the group page. ‘The NS ticket is meant for groups, like friends, relatives or club members’, NS spokesman Martijn Kamans says. ‘The Facebook page helps to create groups exclusively for the ticket.’
Who is the third party?
The terms and conditions of the NS Group return ticket state that it is prohibited to travel with a group ticket when the group in question is brought together through a third party, unless the NS grants permissions for this. This third party does not exist, the Facebook group claims. And they do have a point here: the person who purchases the group ticket is part of the group that travels with the group ticket. Thus, he cannot be considered to be a third party. ‘This is not relevant here’, Kamans objects. ‘The platform itself is the third party, the platform itself creates groups. The NS group return ticket was created for a day-out with friends, family or members of a team or club. We don’t want a new type of customer for this product.’
Up until now, the NS request hasn’t had much result. At this moment the group page is still online. It did make some changes, though: it no longer has specific members that have admin rights for the group. The NS hasn’t yet decided whether to take further steps.
The Rover reward
Rover, an association for travellers who use the Dutch public transport system, doesn’t see much harm in Facebook pages that help create new groups for collective train tickets. ‘Finding and creating a group that travels to the same destination on the same date probably still requires quite a bit of organizing. It’s nice for these travellers that their efforts are rewarded with a cheaper ticket. I don’t expect the activities of this Facebook group to expand so far that it would threaten our Dutch rail travel’, Rover’s representative Sanne van Galen says. She understands that the NS is unhappy, but also argues that it is quite logical that people are looking for ways to travel cheaply. ‘As long as people have had to buy tickets, they have been looking for ways to save money. That is nothing new. The users of the group return ticket abide by the terms and conditions and thus aren’t fare dodgers’, Van Galen points out.
No group tickets at all
Ronald Steenstra, who is a lecturer in Law at the Hanze, looks at the case differently. He thinks the course of action of the members of NS group-tickets Groningen in a legal perspective can be seen as abuse of the goal for which the NS offer is meant. ‘Moreover, one could argue that the group members have acted unlawfully towards the NS. In this case, the NS could choose to seek an injunction against the administrators of the Facebook group. All in all, I think the NS has a good chance, theoretically at least, in forcing the administrators of the Facebook group to discontinue their practices, for instance making them delete the Facebook page.’ Yet Steenstra doubts whether these measures would actually produce the desired effect. ‘Even if there would be a court order for the Facebook page to be deleted, the practices of NS group-tickets Groningen will probably just be continued via another medium. Thus, enforcing the rights of the NS will be difficult. If the NS really wants to deter this type of use of the NS group return ticket, it would be more effective for them no longer to offer this type of collective tickets’, the lecturer explains.
This article appeared in print in HanzeMag 6/2016