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Pamela Whitby caught up with Trainline’s chief operating officer who has been ramping up international expansion in a business that already has scale

What Trainline would really like to do is connect every rail operator in the world, so it becomes the platform of choice for people planning to take the train. That is, of course, no mean feat!

Rail is a highly competitive business, and increasingly coveted because of the clear opportunities for growth. In 2017, the global rail market, according to reports, was estimated to be worth $300bn dollars, but just 20% of those tickets were booked online.

Needless to say, train industry spotters will not have missed Expedia’s $148-million acquisition of train service distributor SilverRail Technologies earlier this year, or Voyages-sncf.com, the French based booking platform’s decision to buy Loco2 and, for that matter, Trainline’s purchase of Captain Train in 2016. 

Although connecting every rail operator may be a long way off, Mark Brooker, Trainline’s chief operating officer, believes the company is in a strong position for offshore growth. Over the past 17 to 18 years, the UK-based company has built a profitable, scalable, and still growing business at home. So now seems the right time to invest in product localisation and marketing in Europe to grow sales, the customer base and the bottom line. With its acquisition of Captain Train, the French leader in European digital rail retailing, last year, that’s already underway.

In Brooker’s previous role at Betfair, a European firm, which operates the world’s largest online gambling exchange, international diversification was his remit, and he is putting that expertise to good use at Trainline. In the six months since joining, further progress has been made in Europe particularly in France, Germany, Spain and Italy. Expansion beyond Europe’s borders is Plan B, and Trainline is already marketing to inbound tourists and business travellers from markets like Canada, the US and Australia.

Today Trainline receives 45 million monthly visits, with over three-quarters of those coming from mobile, and processes £2.3 billion ticket sales each year. It sells in 24 countries, is connected to 86 carriers (20 of those are still in the UK) and continues to add more. It is also building partnerships with long-distance coach companies in European markets where this makes sense. “A multimodal rail and coach offering fits nicely together,” Brooker says.

So far, so good but, like we said, rail is a competitive business, so how is Trainline looking to stand out? Brooker spoke to EyeforTravel about the brand’s commercial strategy going forward, and what makes the company tick.

Technological innovation

Product development is one of the two biggest investments at Trainline, and around half of the 500-strong team are technologists in some shape or form. Their goal: to keep improving the product and perfecting the customer experience. One important development is that the firm is now able to offer multicarrier tickets in a single transaction.

Not only is Trainline an online ticket retailer, it wants to be a travel companion, says Brooker.  And by harnessing data and keeping up to speed with the latest technologies, it is already able to provide real-time travel information in the UK, and is making progress on offering similar services in markets like France. The idea is that nobody should have to be standing under a board waiting for platform data, or rushing for a delayed train!

As a tech focused company, Trainline is exploring how technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning, could further improve the customer experience. One possible scenario, going forward, could see predictive data revealing to customers how prices may fluctuate. In the UK, government has a stated aim of having e-tickets available across the rail network by the end of 2018, meaning that more, and more accurate data will become increasingly available.

(More on Trainline’s approach to data in 10 data science insights from Trainline)

Smart marketing

Without a great product, marketing can’t do its job. Without marketing, Trainline’s other biggest investment, nobody hears about the product. According to Brooker, marketing efforts are a acombination of brand marketing, traditional media above-line campaigns, as well as digital media and performance marketing such as pay-per-click and search engine optimisation. SEO is particularly important for marketing in rail, Brooker explains, because very often people are looking for basic information, such as train times of, say, the first and last train.

This loops back to technology. “Because of the data in the application, we can start to expose real-time information to customers, and then also do more sophisticated stuff,” says Brooker. One example of this is using crowd-sourced data to predict which carriages have seats available.

Providing a useful service, being a useful partner 

Across the travel industry, operators – the airlines, hotels, car firms and rail companies too – want to drive direct bookings and loyalty. And why wouldn’t they – less commission, more data, greater possibility to ‘own’ the customer… But today it doesn’t really work like that. Consumers want speed, a stress free journey and they want choice, and many of them want to do it on a mobile device, and increasingly using voice search.

In this business you can’t progress if you are not useful

So how do rail companies feel about Trainline being the customer’s first point of call for transacting and customer service? Brooker insists: “We have a pretty good relationship with carriers, because in this business you can’t progress if you are not useful”.

Here are some examples, according to Brooker, of what they can deliver:

  • New customers – All carriers would like more inbound travellers, something Trainline can deliver

  • Competition – Start-up operators benefit from consumers being able to see their tickets side-by-side with incumbent

  • Distribution – Even for incumbents, Trainline claims to be a relatively low-cost distribution channel

  • Technology – Safety, infrastructure development, punctuality, labour relations are just some of the things rail operators must think about, so being a best-in-class online retailer may not be top of mind. On this score, digital players like Trainline can help by providing efficient easy-to-use apps.

  • White-label partnerships – Also on the tech front, but B2B focused, Trainline is working with nine UK carriers to run their online distribution because, “we can do it more efficiently, with better sales and conversion performance”.

Recognising the potential, understanding behaviour, growing the market

Trainline’s most important objective is to grow the market for rail.

“If we do that by making it easier to book, giving better travel information, offering best in class mobile apps and so on, then we can grow the slice of travel pie that rail takes. That’s good for us and it’s good for the rail carriers,” Brooker says. “And as we reach critical mass in a market [as in the UK] there is the opportunity to sell incremental journeys to Trainline customers.”

From data gathered, there is then the ability to market smart ideas about where they might go and special, based on their travel history. “As most seats available on any rail network go unsold every day, if Trainline can sell even one more seat that good for the operators, as it falls straight to the bottom line,” he says.

And rail travel in Europe is set for growth. High-speed networks currently under construction or being planned in Europe over the next 15 years, could lead to a 4x increase in super fast rail travel. Brooker sees the switch from air to rail, as another opportunity. “The sweet spot in rail is three to four hours. If that’s how long my journey will be then why would I fly,” says Brooker.

Anyone who has been in an airport this summer will know he has a point.

Want to hear more about Trainline’s data strategy? Don’t miss the Amsterdam Smart Data Summit, which is co-located with Digital Strategies for Travel where Fergus Weldon, Trainline’s head of data science, will be speaking alongside numerous other experts in the field from companies that include Accor, Contiki, Kayak and Eurail

Smart Travel Data Summit 2017

November 2017, Amsterdam

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