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From API partnerships that facilitate a cohesive online customer journey to chatbots and voice-activated search, rail travel distribution is transforming. Sarah McCay Tams reports

Online travel agencies and metasearch companies have predominantly focused on hotels and flights, but now rail is finally going digital. This revolution of the rail sector was a hot topic at the recent EyeforTravel Europe Summit - and where better to talk about it than in the UK, which has more train stations than the world has airports!

Little wonder that this travel vertical is starting to see more attention from technology providers, as they aim to streamline and integrate the rail booking process. “Most travel companies don’t sell rail because it is a complex product to sell. It is often state run and there is a history of protectionism. However, it is a very efficient way to move people and it is 90% more eco friendly than air,” said Cameron Jones, CCO, SilverRail Technologies, who spoke on a panel titled How API Partnerships Are Going To Change Our Business Forever.

According to Jones, around 80% of bookers go direct to the supplier – the rail operator. They use the supplier’s website, but there is often a lack of consistency in these. SilverRail provides a third-party platform to power the lifecycle of a rail booking, and aims to connect the rail sector with the rest of the travel cycle. At present, more than 35 rail carriers from seven countries use SilverRail for journey planning or to power rail bookings.

Both rail operators and online travel agencies (OTAs) can use the SilverRail API, providing a consistency to the booking process, as the user interfaces will look similar. Jones explained: “We provide channel consistency across web and mobile. This helps drive frequency and loyalty.”

Using a third-party API, such as SilverRail, also provides the opportunity to cross sell or package rail with other products, such as hotels, car rental or attractions. For example, Expedia started selling rail via the SilverRail API six months ago.

Voice-activated bookings

Both SilverRail and Voyages-sncf.com are working to integrate rail distribution with voice-activated technology, such as Amazon’s Alexa.

Arnaud Masson, Chief Operating Officer of the Business Unit Europe of Voyages-sncf.com, the e-commerce division of the French rail company, provided a video demonstration of the latest technology under development at the company. Chatbot Léa is being developed to talk to Amazon’s Alexa, enabling end-users to simply ask about train tickets and then book during the conversation. The chatbot is already integrated with Facebook Messenger, providing customer service via the social media platform.

    
Arnaud Masson, Chief Operating Officer at the Business Unit Europe, Voyages-sncf.com
 

“Technology is the ‘how’, simplicity is the ‘goal’,” said Masson, going on to explain that Voyages-sncf.com is working to sell more than just train tickets via its online booking tool. Tours and activities sales have been earmarked for future development. “It’s the last vertical to be digitalised,” Masson commented. 

Solving the pan-European problem

Want to book a train ticket from Manchester, UK to Palermo in Sicily? Loco2 is a tech start-up that has grown to cover the whole of Europe’s rail market in just five years.

The online booking service, which CEO Jamie Andrews described as part meta search part OTA, now serves more than 250,000 customers, providing end-to-end booking solutions across six major rail operators in Europe.

“We set up to solve the pan-European problem of booking rail travel. We are the merchant on record for six major rail operators and provide multi-currency, and soon a multi-language, service,” Andrews explained.

Loco2 sells tickets, without booking fees, through its website and via its Smartphone app, which is available on iOS and Android platforms.

Speaking at the EyeforTravel European Summit, Andrews tackled the battle of customer ownership across the affiliate chain. Loco2 works with both inbound and outbound affiliates, including companies such as Rome2Rio, Airbnb and Booking.com. All want to own the customer. Andrews offered this advice: “The online user experience and how useful your service is will help you retain a customer.”

As the rail industry and distribution innovators work together, the online user experience for taking the train looks set to serve less of a strain on consumers, garnering increased bookings and growing loyalty.

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