Will Phillipson: Improved rail tech expands choice: are you ready?

01 November 2016

Easier booking processes and a changing service could encourage a switch from air to rail

In the last decade, travel has experienced more change than it saw in the previous 50 years, with some calling it a travel revolution. This has been driven by companies ‘wiring up’ all of the big travel products - flights, cruises, taxis, rental cars, buses, trams and trains – to the web enabling consumers with access, search and booking capability regardless of location or channel. This has changed dramatically with the last major travel product, rail, finally joining the online party.

This change has seen technology reshape the relationship between travel buyers and sellers with the traveller being crowned as king. It has empowered travellers with unprecedented choice and as a result, more are choosing to travel by rail.

The technological change and difference in behaviour has meant it is harder for travel buyers to manage travellers. This has caused a shift in policy strategy of late; travel managers are moving away from a focus of pushing negotiated contracts to drive cost savings to adopt a traveller centric view instead. This puts the needs of travellers at the heart of everything they do, keeps travellers from breaching company policy and in doing so increases savings through compliance.

Rail has historically been inaccessible and therefore not as visible as a potential travel option. But with standardised booking platforms now a reality and rail’s increased focus on enhancing the customer experience, it is becoming a top preference for business travellers.

How rail has been getting its act together

Firstly, Europe has been investing heavily in its high speed rail network over the last few years, giving rail a competitive edge over air for the first time. This is particularly apparent on high speed routes of four hours or less, where travellers are increasingly choosing the convenience that rail offers over short-haul flights.

Will Philipson NovOne of the main reasons for this is the fact that rail is far more productive. Recent research by Belgium operator Thalys revealed that 90% of travel managers surveyed viewed rail travel as productive time, while only 6% said the same about air travel. Secondly, business travellers find that rail is more convenient as it gets them to their destination with less stress while typically offering an end-to-end, city centre to city centre journey as train stations are typically in, or very close to business centres. This is a major influence on the time-conscious business traveller.

Rail air tableWhy is this important?

Because if rail isn’t incorporated into a company’s travel policy and booking tools, travel managers will have an incomplete view of activity as travellers continue to transition away from air in favour of rail. Travel managers can’t measure or track the performance of their programme, savings or duty of care without that visibility.

Traditionally, companies haven’t been able to integrate rail into their global programmes as they have done with other products due the complexity and fragmentation across markets. However, thanks to recent technology developments, online booking tools and travel management companies can now connect to a digital interface which enables travellers to manage multiple rail bookings from multiple carriers in multiple countries in a consistent manner across channels.

This means that today travel managers are able to incorporate rail into their global travel policies; allowing employees to book international rail, access local fares, offers and discounts from one single interface for each country they are booking in. Employees can also book rail using their local credit cards or corporate lodge cards and typically in their local currency.

Adding rail to corporate travel programmes can help a company drive online adoption (and thus ensure booking within a travel policy and reduce ‘leakage’), reduce costs, reduce a company’s carbon footprint and reduce traveller friction.

Continued technological development will drive rail efficiency further

Another trend that we see that raises rail’s profile with travellers is the industry’s investment in new technologies, aimed at enhancing the customer experience. For example SJ, the national rail carrier for Sweden, is using technology that enables travellers to seamlessly search, book, and travel across multiple modes of transport including trains, buses, taxis and other metropolitan transit providers – all on one platform and one itinerary.

In the UK there is excitement around how smart use of technology can help solve some of rail’s biggest challenges. Hacktrain is a dynamic group introducing train operating companies to innovative technology start-ups and encouraging experimentation. Big rail issues are being tackled head on by developers with train disruption, overcrowding and ticketing all being addressed. Some of the exciting concepts and collaborations are:

  • Vivacity and Pointr – addressing overcrowding and passenger distribution through the innovative use of ibeacons and existing CCTV infrastructure to give operators real-time analytics on the number of passengers on platforms and trains. These insights can help operators enhance passenger flow, while helping passengers locate the least crowded trains.
  • Ticket – using a smartphone camera and their latest technology, it allows users to scan their train ticket to determine its validity on other services, the estimated arrival time and any delays.
  • IGeolise – helping improve the adoption of rail by creating a platform that turns miles into time, clearly highlighting how far travellers can travel by train on set amounts of time.

If you take into account all factors – including productivity, convenience, technology enhancements, and CO2 impact – rail travel is often a winning choice. Now is the time to improve the visibility of rail as a travel option to your travellers and truly challenge the status quo.

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