Rail booking: Just the ticket?

Train operators, TMCs and travel technology firms are improving delay compensation, auto-refunds and e-ticketing. But business travellers have yet to realise the benefits

Increased use of rail by business travellers is driven as much by booking technology as by onboard improvements and public investment in the infrastructure. That technology is continuing to develop.

Evolvi (exclusively via TMCs and application programme interface links) and Trainline for Business (via TMCs and also working directly with corporates) dominate booking of rail travel within Britain, while the GDSs are developing technology to book rail travel in Europe and beyond, and into Britain. Trainline has also launched a European booking system and Evolvi now offers 100 European city pairs via API links, while both also offer Eurostar.

The Evolvi, Trainline and TMC Click Travel systems are highly developed and used via self-booking tools, with the benefits of advance booking when possible widely understood. The savings are obvious, with Evolvi’s average ticket value continuing to fall despite year-on-year fare increases across the rail industry. The average transaction was £56.82 in 2017, down from £59.03 in 2013 – despite average fare increases of around 3 per cent per annum in that time.

Evolvi and Trainline are focused on rolling out e-ticketing to mobile devices, but here they are dependent on investment by train operators. E-ticketing is being made a requirement of new franchise agreements, but many operators still restrict it to advance rather than flexible “Anytime” tickets, with some major operators, including Great Western, having hardly any e-ticketing capability.

But David Higgins, director at Trainline for Business, says: “We are part of an industry project that is delivering e-tickets across the national network by the end of 2018, which is pretty swift by industry standards. We’re confident this objective will be met.”

Evolvi managing director Ken Cameron is more guarded, saying: “Our customers very much support the concept of frictionless travel, and e-ticketing is an important element in that, but there are structural challenges that need to be overcome to enable corporate travellers to benefit from e-ticketing for multi-operator journeys.”

Most corporates are still determined to drive down ticket costs further, and apart from split ticketing (see p132) they await moves by the rail industry to simplify fares across the board. Trials were announced by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which includes all train operators, early in 2017 – but there has been little progress.

Raj Sachdave, formerly Capita Travel’s head of rail, now running the consultancy Black Box Partnerships, says: “The RDG does a good job promoting a smart, collaborative rail industry working for the customer but, under the surface, it is still a fragmented industry that doesn’t deliver results.”

He adds: “Evolvi and Trainline have got the buying and ticketing of rail travel done and dusted, but rail is usually only one segment of a business trip and they need to move beyond that. They should consider enabling booking of taxis, car rental, station car parking and other services – even left luggage. A network of service providers could be knitted together in one booking – how about coffee and a breakfast box delivered to your seat?”

A development that could bring down fares is the wider availability of advance ticket purchases on the same day. Advance ticket purchases are generally available only until 6pm the previous day, but operators, including CrossCountry and East Coast, now have limited availability on the same day. But advance fares are always lower the earlier you book, and there can be issues onboard if a passenger occupying a vacant seat is asked to move when it becomes reserved during the journey.

“There is little effect on booking policy,” says a Trainline’s Higgins. “Some fares specific to a train operator may be slightly cheaper on the day than the walk-up fare, but if you need flexibility then the advance product may not be right for you.”

Evolvi continues to develop, as Ken Cameron explains: “We have introduced multiple enhancements in recent times, notably around e-ticketing and auto-refunds. We are widening TMC access to our platforms, but we are also leading the way in innovations linked to our API, including successful integration between our respective platforms with the Travel and Transport Statesman TMC.

“The UK’s most advanced rail API enables travel content aggregators, GDS, expense management systems and TMC portals to benefit. It covers all available fulfilment options and the widest range of fare types, and also provides access to the top 100 city pairs across Europe. Unlike other rail APIs, any new functionality is instantly updated for our partners to integrate as they wish.”

Simplifying fares
Although online systems present fares as simply as possible, Cameron says the rail industry’s move towards simplifying fares is slow. “A key objective of the RDG Rail Simplification programme is to remove the anomalies and complexity that currently result in split ticketing, and it plans to offer the cheapest fare for every journey by default,” he explains. “We very much support these objectives but, like other stakeholders, feel frustrated by the apparent lack of progress.”

While Evolvi and Trainline dominate the market, Click Travel has developed its own system – OpenRail, which sits within its travel.cloud system. A key advantage is that no fees are payable when tickets are retrieved from ticket machines, while OpenRail offers full management information.

Click Travel director of operations Chris Vince says: “Because we have developed our own technology, we don’t have to pass on third-party costs to customers – while the refund process is very easy. Simplicity is the system’s USP, and it’s designed to offer the cheapest ticket every time.

“We are working on e-ticketing, but it needs to be consistent across all train operators and ticket types. It would be great to see simpler fares as being trialled by CrossCountry and Virgin, but there’s a long way to go. Virgin’s app offering the possibility of upgrading to first class for £5 the day before travel is interesting.”

A survey by the GTMC indicates strong demand for both advance (68 per cent of respondents) and flexible Anytime tickets (66 per cent). CEO Adrian Parkes says: “As more business travellers need to work while out of the office, the onus is on train operators to provide the functionality and technology to support this. They must ensure TMCs have access to mobile ticketing and refunds on all bookings and fares, to ensure there are flexible and relevant ticketing options for today’s business traveller.”

Europe and beyond
As Britain lags behind several European countries in providing a high-speed rail network – until GDS are working hard to deliver full functionality for booking European rail, while Asia is a key growth area. Online specialists such as Trainline and Voyages-SNCF (owned by French Railways but booking rail throughout Europe) offer an alternative.

Martin Danzl, director ground and sea for Sabre, says high-speed train operators are working on API technology to deliver improved functionality via GDS – while greater “visibility” of rail is driving bookings from air to rail with productivity gains and carbon savings as a result.

“High-speed rail is developing throughout western Europe with the new line from Munich to Berlin being the latest success,” he says. “Some rail operators, including Eurostar, have IATA codes so they can be displayed alongside air, but you don’t need rail to be on the same screen as air to create one booking flow.

“Since 2010 there has been an open market for rail within the EU, but with the exception of Italy there are still monopolies. In Germany, however, we are seeing tech-driven operator Flixtrain moving in.

“We are now distributing rail in Russia, which could be a big market. Japan and China have major high-speed networks, but the technology is restricted and there are hurdles to overcome. High-speed rail is developing in South Korea, and while the US is not a big rail market, Amtrak is making strides.”

Paul Broughton, Travelport managing director UK and Ireland, says there has been “a significant shift from air to rail bookings” in countries investing heavily in high-speed rail. But he adds: “The non-standardisation of rail content and lack of a common rail protocol makes rail journeys, outside of air/ rail agreements, complicated to book.

“Rail operators must make their content and fares available for booking worldwide and using the same workflow that TMCs use to buy air, hotel and car travel. With high-speed trains capturing a market almost half the size of the airline industry, Travelport is playing a key role as a facilitator with air-rail codeshare services, such as our Heathrow Express app.”

Amadeus is a leading player in rail, investing Ð100 million in development and issuing a report identifying Asia as a region of great potential. Antoine de Kerviler, global head of rail and ground travel, says: “We want to make rail as easy to book as air, and are pushing for standardisation and a more global approach by train operators. There’s a lot of pressure from TMCs for deeper integration of rail, but there are still big challenges such as cross-border journeys.”

Voyages-SNCF has seen a steady increase in business bookings online, with Print@ Home and e-ticketing becoming more widely available, including on Eurostar Connection routes. Trainline has a growing portfolio of corporate customers across Europe, and is talking to UK corporates about supporting their staff in other European countries.

GTMC is calling on European train operators to prioritise the role of the TMC in the ticketing process, by providing access to all international rail ticket sales channels so that they are able to offer the best options.

The consumer market is already aware of major savings that can be made by booking a rail journey using two or more tickets for the same trip – a phenomenon known as split ticketing. Some of the technology companies involved have ambitions to move into the business sector, including Ticketclever, but would there be enough demand?

As with any advance purchase, split ticketing costs less the further ahead you book. It’s not unusual to make savings of at least one-third, even on some peak hour journeys, as the systems come up with various combinations of advance and Anytime tickets.

Technology firms such as Ticketclever and Raileasy are exploiting anomalies in fares that often make a ticket from A to C via B considerably more expensive than two tickets A-B and B-C. The downside is that advance tickets are often tied to seat reservations and you may have to change seats even on the same train.

End of split ticketing?
If the rail industry simplifies fares – it promises an announcement later this year – split ticketing may disappear. Train operators may react to the loss of revenue by refusing to accept split ticketing unless the train stops at the stations involved.

Like Evolvi, Trainline does not offer split ticketing. “We always aim to offer passengers the best fare possible, and split ticketing has long proved too complex to deliver due to the many millions of fare combinations,” says Trainline for Business’s Higgins. “We have for some time been working with the rest of the industry to find a solution to this immense challenge.”

Black Box Partnerships’ Sachdave adds: “Train operators aren’t best friends with these new players, and there are issues around how train operators share revenue on long journeys. You have to ask why split ticketing is necessary. If fares were simplified, there would be no need.

“How many business travellers can be bothered with lots of tickets for the same journey, and needing to change seats?”

However, Click Travel’s Chris Vince thinks business travellers would be interested. “Split ticketing can be inconvenient, but we can talk to businesses about how they can use it to their advantage,” he says.

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