The fragmented world of rail booking has lagged behind other sectors but with advances in technology and innovation, is the industry back on track, asks Dave Richardson?
Imagine a scenario where a mobile app lets you book and amend rail travel on the move, building in full MI and policy compliance. It reminds you to book your usual train, tells you which platform you’re leaving from before it’s announced, opens ticket gates, is scanned by onboard inspectors and even finds the carriage with the best availability of unreserved seats.
Some of this is already a reality. And now there are trials of iris and fingerprint scanning, so that passengers will be automatically charged for their journeys.
But we have to remember that the British rail industry is much more complex than the airline business, with an almost infinite number of ticket permutations. It is also very fragmented, and although a commitment to mobile ticketing is a condition of new franchise awards, the investment needed acts as a brake on train operators nearing the end of their franchise terms.
Fair fares for business travel
Business travellers want the same ease of ticketing and boarding as with airlines, but Will Hasler, chairman of the ITM’s industry affairs group, cautions them to be realistic.
He does, however, feel that train operators should offer the same range of fares and deals to business travellers booking through the established online channels, as leisure travellers booking direct through their websites.
“You can generally split train operators into two groups – predominantly leisure or commuter lines such as Southern, South Eastern and South West Trains, and those with a clear mix of passengers, including business people and commuters in the peak, and leisure in the off-peak, such as Great Western, Virgin Trains East Coast and Virgin Trains West Coast,” he says.
“It’s predominantly the latter group that needs to focus their attention on providing the same features in business channels as they do for leisure channels. More than a year ago, Virgin Trains West Coast announced mobile ticketing, platform announcements and automated ‘delay repay’, all to a great fanfare; however, only if people used its direct channel and app.
“This irked many travel managers who have spent a significant amount of time persuading their superiors that capturing rail spend was useful, not least for risk management.”
Hasler adds: “Many self-booking tools and TMCs have their own apps, but only some allow you to book rail travel. Those that allow bookings often do not permit changes on these devices, which business travellers deem just as important. Allowing people to book all travel on mobile applications must be a focus.”
Self-booking apps restricted
The non-availability of some fares through Evolvi or Trainline is a concern, and so are loyalty schemes not offered through these channels.
Another example is Cross Country, which waives its £10 admin fee for customers changing advance tickets bought only on its website. It has also cut the time between booking a ticket and collecting it from a station machine to five minutes for registered online customers.
Evolvi managing director Ken Cameron says he has lobbied the regulators, the Office of Rail and Road, and the Rail Delivery Group (bringing together train operators and Network Rail), to give Evolvi customers the same advantages.
“We remain disappointed that train operators are allowed to promote special or temporary fares through their own websites and not through all retailers,” he says. “It will be interesting to see if the RDG can address this as it is clearly the number one issue for all retailers.
“We adhere to the standards set by the RDG and follow developments closely,” he adds. “The trials of alternative technologies and prospects of more to come are very exciting, but our priority is to provide a contemporaneous, dynamic platform for our customer base, and to lay the foundations for new methodologies when they are adopted by the industry as a whole.”
The roll-out of mobile ticketing is in the train operators’ court, and progress so far has been patchy, with generally good availability of advance tickets for main long-distance operators on mobile, but little availability for flexible tickets.
Virgin Trains West Coast is a shining example as all tickets can be delivered to mobile, but on its East Coast route this was limited to London-Edinburgh and London-Leeds, as of early April. Great Western was offering virtually no flexible tickets on mobile, while CrossCountry was offering them only on the Manchester-Birmingham route, and from Leeds to Sheffield and York.
“Train operators determine the rate and scale of new ticketing methods,” says Cameron. “There is clear momentum in this area, which is to be applauded. However, the evidence suggests we are some way away from universal replacement of the orange-bordered ticket, and parity with it in terms of recognition, acceptance, refunds and inter-availability.”
The latest Evolvi app enables users to browse train times, make new bookings, check departure boards and specify ticketing preferences, including accessing and activating mobile tickets on the go. Policy compliance, as on the Evolvi platform, is mirrored in the settings of individual users. Later this year, it will offer TMCs the ability to manage refunds for mobile tickets.
Trainline targets the SME
Trainline’s app, aimed at SMEs, includes innovative features such as BusyBot, using crowd-sourced data to advise travellers where to board a train to have the best chance of getting an unreserved seat.
Real-time information is available, and SME clients can benefit from e-receipts and integration with expense solution providers. A revamped business dashboard allows SMEs to book for multiple employees.
Alidad Moghaddam, European director of Trainline for Business, says: “We know that business and leisure travellers share a desire for a more convenient and hassle-free train travel experience. On routes where we offer the option of a mobile ticket, 75 per cent of leisure travellers go for it – and we expect to see this strong appetite in the business travel market as well.
“As travellers become more connected, their demands for real-time information and a tailored experience from business apps will increase. There will be an expectation of hyper-personalisation as standard, with end-to-end journey solutions booked with a click or through digital assistants.”
Redfern Travel business development director, Kate Wimpeney, says business booking systems should mirror the ease of booking on leisure rail systems. A major rail TMC and Evolvi customer, it claims to be the only TMC to offer online amendments across all key products, including rail, via its Trips system.
“Offering customers the opportunity to make their own amendments and managing those in a touch-free environment reduces the call on our team, so we reduce costs and can offer amendments free of charge,” says Wimpeney.
“Customers want TMCs to offer the same ‘touchy-feely tech’ they experience in the online B2C world, such as apps that let you know your train is delayed or departing from a different platform, or live updates when Farmer Giles’s prize heifer has strayed on to the track.”
While the industry awaits action from the Rail Delivery Group to sanction the same deals through all channels, the RDG is at least trying to simplify fares in a long-overdue trial. This could lead to the most radical overhaul of fares in 30 years, including displaying the best value fares to remove the need for split ticketing.
Various websites allow a traveller to split a journey into two or more segments, achieving sometimes major savings without needing to change trains (though you may have to change seats). But again, this feature is not widely available.
A best value end-to-end “through fare” will also be trialled where customers change trains, paying one price combining the cheapest fare for each leg of the journey.
A pan-European booking system integrating rail, other ground transportation and air – creating a true end-to-end journey – is inching towards becoming reality. In the meantime, GDS are improving their access to rail operators in Europe and beyond.
Trainline has announced the roll-out of an online European rail booking system with “the broadest possible European rail content for all our business customers from corporates to TMCs through a single source”.
Amadeus is one of the key partners in www.allwaystravelling.eu, a consortium part-funded by the European Commission that aims to make a single booking system a reality.
Amadeus head of sales for rail and ground transportation Mirja Sickel says “proof of concept” has been achieved on this, but rail operators need to agree common standards – as airlines succeeded in doing decades ago.
“It is around the corner to becoming a reality, but ultimately industry players need to come together,” she explains. “But we are achieving good momentum going forward.”
Amadeus claims to have a lead on other GDSs connecting to rail, and in the UK it works with both Evolvi and Trainline to integrate their content, making possible a combination of rail, air and hotels on a single itinerary.
It connects TMCs to all major European operators, including Eurostar, SNCF (France), DB (Germany), RENFE (Spain), Italian companies Trenitalia and NTV, international operators Thalys and Lyria, and other networks across Europe.
On the right track
To avoid TMCs having to make cumbersome agreements with individual operators, Amadeus now acts as the merchant, allowing them to book any participating operator.
But Sickel accepts there is some way to go in booking airport rail links (Heathrow Express being a welcome exception), and cross-border journeys.
“In all major European markets we have the widest availability of rail, but rail is complex. We need to get operators to communicate rather than any technological issues,” she says. “Our biggest growth area is Asia Pacific, with Japan being the most mature rail market and China coming along.”
Other GDSs are also targeting rail, with Travelport reporting an increase in bookings combining rail with air on routes where rail has a high share. It has worked with Eurostar and US operator Amtrak to develop apps enabling TMCs to book in the same way as they do a flight.
But frustrations remain, with the ITM concerned about fragmentation.
Will Hasler, chairman of its industry affairs group, says: “Overseas rail is a bit chicken-and-egg. We don’t know how much will get booked until it’s visible on systems and all the fares are shown, not just a selection.
“If more airport rail was available on global systems, corporate taxi spend would diminish. Most major airports have good connectivity to cities via fast trains, but we can’t book airport-rail links, such as Frankfurt and Amsterdam, on our systems.”