There is a lot going on to bring the rail sector fully into the digital age and to drive ancillary sales across the sector. Sally White reports

UK rail is taking huge steps into the digital age. Firstly, fare aggregator and travel metasearch engine Skyscanner is launching a countrywide train booking feature for mobiles. Then the Department for Transport (DfT) itself is gearing up for smart ticketing as part of a £35 billion five-year rail upgrade programme in England and Wales.

“We are working to make smart ticketing available across almost all of the network by the end of 2018, and extending discounted rail travel,” says the DfT. Also targeted as a “near term priority” are “improved Wifi and mobile connectivity and better accessibility”.

Britain’s rail ticketing system, the DfT had the grace to admit in a ‘strategic vision for rail’ published at the end of last year, ‘remains archaic’, needing to be ‘consigned to history’. It added: “In most major cities internationally, smart ticketing is the norm. Yet in the UK progress has been far too slow outside Scotland and larger cities, including London where Oyster, contactless cards and mobile phones provide cross-modal ticketing.”

According to Leo Langford, EyeforTravel Global Events Director, research for EyeforTravel Europe shows a huge drive to push rail into the digital age, and not just from rail operators. “Across the travel sector, providers are looking to promote their products to the rail customer to drive some serious ancillary sales,” he says.

In the future, ticketing is likely to take two forms. For short journeys there will be (as in London) pay-as-you-go schemes with the options of smart cards, contactless cards or smartphones. For longer distances, where pay-as-you-go is not seen as plausible, passengers will need to continue to pay in advance. But payment will increasingly be allowed by mobile devices and technology introduced at stations to read them.

All this helps improve rail’s attraction. As Cameron Jones, chief commercial officer at SilverRail, who will be speaking in London, puts it: “Rail’s time is now. Expedia, Rail Europe, Rome2Rio, Trainline, GoEuro and more are raising the profile and relevance of rail as a key product line in a comprehensive retailing strategy. Rail gives travellers greater choice and flexibility when trip planning and, being a high frequency product, drives traffic and loyalty enabling retailers to lower their customer acquisition costs. And Skyscanner/Ctrip’s recent move into rail in Europe highlights the momentum.”

Skyscanner helps set the pace

Currently, Skyscanner’s new rail offer lets UK users of its iOS app book UK train journeys, but the feature will shortly be coming to Android users, too. Around 60% of Skyscanner’s traffic is currently on mobile.

The data behind the rail feature will be powered by Trip by Skyscanner, formerly Trip.com, the international travel booking service of Skyscanner’s Chinese parent Ctrip.

Ctrip invested in Skyscanner in December 2016 in a deal worth £1.4 billion. While Skyscanner remains operationally independent, the sale has allowed it to leverage Ctrip’s technology. Late last year, the Chinese firm bought Trip.com, which combines finding a deal on a hotel with recommendations on places to eat and things to do, late last year. Trip.com founder Travis Katz said then that: “The idea of this deal is for Skyscanner to marry in-destination reviews content in Trip.com’s arsenal to Skyscanner’s platform.”

For Skyscanner it was about a partnership to make the site a place where travellers could find everything they needed for travel planning in one single place.

Says Gil Harel, Senior Vice President of Business Development at Trip by Skyscanner: “Our focus has always been on making travel as easy as possible and our new train feature will do just that, with the benefit of no booking fees.”

Skyscanner is making content available to the travel industry through an API. According to Harel, who will be speaking at EyeforTravel North America later this year, The Trip by Skyscanner (formerly Trip.com) content API allows partners to do four main things.

  • Inspires travel through access to worldwide coverage of destination content that informs the traveller
  •  Provides relevant information to customers that aids booking decisions
  •  Adds elements of engagement and retention to the travel products of our partners
  •  Offers a continually growing and refreshed database of content thanks to a “vibrant community of users”. 

Skyscanner is on a mission to make travel planning and booking as easy as possible for as many people as possible around the world. Harel expects the API “to allow businesses to serve points of interest and reviews from other travellers that are tailored to their audience, creating a hyper-relevant travel experience that resonates and keeps them coming back”.  

Partners pay to access the API and the price varies between the standard and premium product.

Skyscanner is one to watch. The company has been steadily increasing its offer, building on its core online flights, hotels and car rental coverage. Content is clearly a focus. Last year, for example, it also bought UK start-up Twizoo, which provides a platform for brands to inject relevant social content across their digital footprint.

Hear from other rail movers and shakers at EyeforTravel Europe including RailEurope CIO Didier Pinson, Eurostar Commercial DirectorNick Mercer, Eurostar’s CEO Brenda van Leeuwenand Italiarail CEO Mike Fuller. And if you want to hear more from Gil Harel, Senior Vice President of Business Development at Trip by Skyscanner, join us in Las Vegas 

EyeforTravel Europe 2018

June 2018, London

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