There are several new options on the horizon for buying rail travel. Dave Richardson looks at the evolving world of train ticketing
WHEN DICK WHITTINGTON set off to seek his fortune in London in the 14th century, he certainly didn't go by train. He tied up his few possessions in a red spotted handkerchief on a stick, and walked.
Today he might go by train and, being a sensible lad, book in advance to get a discount. And if he became Lord Mayor of London, with thousands of staff, he would have a widening choice of online retailers offering tantalising stuff such as emissions reporting and policy compliance.
Redspottedhanky.com is one of the new brands of online rail retailers that had a big presence at this year's Business Travel & Meetings Show. Also present for the first time was Raileasy4business, while other names in the frame include Quno and RailGo.
They are challenging what they see as the duopoly of Evolvi, which only supplies travel management companies (TMCs), and thetrainline.com, which supplies both TMCs and corporates direct. There's still plenty of unmanaged corporate rail business to go after, but whether they prove to be anything more than an irritant to the big two remains to be seen.
If your company spends a significant amount on rail travel then it makes sense to use one of these systems, which offer full suites of management information (MI) and help drive policy compliance. Occasional users can get the same discounts online by booking with any train operating company (TOC), but with none of the frills.
Quno, launched in October 2010, is not competing with the big two as it is aimed at the individual booker, but still sees plenty of potential from SMEs. It also aims to offer rail travel in much of Europe, and in the US Amtrak goes live this spring.
Quno managing director Jeremy Acklam says: "The key for small business users is to complete transactions quickly and deal with cancellations effectively. Our instant refund feature is unique to us, as with other systems you have to print off tickets and send them in, or pay for a faster service. We are working on connections with Eurostar and with the French, German and Dutch systems. As high-speed routes develop, rail will be the main mode of transport to 'near Europe'."
Quno charges a fee of 50p for debit cards and £2.50 for credit cards (whereas if you book through a TOC website you may pay no fees at all), the range of fares is broadly the same as other online retailers and you can collect tickets from machines at over 900 stations.
Redspottedhanky.com is aiming squarely at the corporate market, and it claims a USP: all business account customers join a loyalty scheme offering £1 back for every £100 spent, to be used to cut company spending or as a perk for the individual. It says fees are "a moveable feast" with a notional £1 fee that "may not apply", and no fees at all for volume business.
Director James Bain says: "Our loyalty scheme is unique in the UK corporate rail business. You can collect tickets at the station or receive them by post, and large users can have ticket machines on their premises, as with Imperial College in London. Going forward, companies will be able to print their own tickets or receive them on a mobile."
Redspottedhanky.com also offers MI and policy compliance tools, and aims to add European ticketing and Amtrak in the medium term. Bain adds: "We hope to grow by attracting more businesses to book rail in advance, and by taking business from competitors."
Raileasy4business is also has the big two firmly in its sights, and, unlike other new entrants, it has a three-year track record in online rail retailing through its consumer website, raileasy.co.uk. Its new business venture is in partnership with DataFlexNet, which has 20 years' expertise working with partners including Travelport, Sabre , MasterCard and Citibank.
It has a white label product for TMCs to offer their corporate clients or to utilise within their own organisation, and it is also available directly to corporates. With comprehensive policy and reporting tool functions, it can be linked to lodged cards from major card companies.
The search results offer eight journeys each way compared to the four or five generally offered by rivals. It is working to integrate Eurostar through fares to over 200 destinations in France, Belgium and Holland, and is also developing a range of mobile applications.
Raileasy4business operations director, Simon Riley, says: "At the Business Travel & Meetings Show, it became apparent that TMCs move from one rail retailer to another, as with global distribution systems [GDSs]. Some TMCs and corporates told us they were not happy with their current supplier, and that the finances weren't stacking up.
"We have positioned ourselves to offer lower fees than our competitors, and reductions on fees as volume increases. We offer more times and fares on the display, the option to compare costs of fixed departure times and flexible tickets, and automated integration with back office systems and GDS."
Some TMCs have opted to build their own rail booking systems, including the website takethetrain.co.uk just launched by Click Travel, aimed at both business users and consumers. It charges no booking fees, no credit card fees and no delivery fees except for courier services.
"We spotted a gap in the market for a rail ticketing search engine that was simple, intuitive and offered greater functionality than the popular online tools already available," says Simon McLean, managing director of Click Travel.
"Takethetrain.co.uk is a complete departure from what already exists in the consumer rail market. We've designed our platform purely from the end user's point of view."
Business market leader Evolvi takes a sanguine view of the new competition, while acknowledging this is an issue. It achieved another record year in 2010, driving up revenue by 8 per cent to £262 million, with 4.25 million UK rail journeys processed. But demand could slump following the new public sector budgets that kicked in on April 1, affecting private sector contracts, too.
Evolvi trade relations director, Jon Reeve, says: "We are still showing an increase in transactions this year, but there has been a significant downturn in first class travel. Given our success it is not surprising there is more competition, but we are still the market leader through TMCs and the only one not competing with them for their core corporate business.
The MI available through Evolvi is already very rich, and may be enhanced yet further. This is where it may outpace competitors, with compliance, benchmarking and reporting functions, including the lowest fare, emissions information, corporate discounts, attribution of trip, payment methods and uncollected tickets on departure.
Thetrainline.com is also driving forward, and is in the vanguard of technological change. About one million people have downloaded its free iPhone application, now available on many other mobile devices, and a business version of this is being developed. It plans to be the first to introduce mobile phone and smart card ticketing, but this depends on the rail infrastructure at stations and on trains being able to handle it.
The GDSs are developing their rail capability both for Europe and worldwide, whereas for UK rail travel they have developed partnerships with either Evolvi or thetrainline.com. Amadeus is possibly the most advanced, but Sabre and Travelport are also developing.
Travelport's Universal API aims to fully integrate rail and air bookings when Europe's many individual rail operators are ready.
Amadeus has launched a new version of its direct booking channel interface for railways, Amadeus Internet Track. It offers over 100 rail providers worldwide, as far away as Australia, but integration (and possible through-ticketing) with airlines is still limited. A European Commission-led project is under way to create a Europe-wide booking system, but this will take years.
"Amadeus' unique air/rail mixed display provides an instant comparison of rail and flight journey times and costs," says an Amadeus spokesperson. "It also positions railways on competing routes, and complements long-distance air journeys. For the first time in the GDS environment, you can book highspeed and inter-city rail tickets in the same way as an airline seat."
JOURNEY REPORT: VIRGIN TRAINS, LONDON-GLASGOW
Virgin Trains - whose franchise is up for renewal in March 2012 - is eating into airlines' share on this route. Trials have shown the train can beat the plane on a city centre-to-city centre journey - but is travelling by first class worth it?
I didn't have time to visit the first class lounge at Euston station, but after an early start the warm aroma coming from the onboard kitchen was very welcome. A cooked breakfast was still being served on my 9.30am departure and all meals and drinks are included in first class fares. The table was laid with proper china and cutlery. The Pendolino train was soon up to its top speed of 125mph, with a little vibration producing some jingling of the plates and spoons. Breakfast was rather late arriving at 10.10am, but was well worth waiting for, with bacon, egg, sausage, tomato, potato cake and black pudding. A hot salmon dish was also available. Then it was time for work.
Virgin Trains' wifihome page came up on my laptop, including a route map showing wificoverage (good nearly everywhere, but patchy north of Lancaster). A couple of minutes later I was online, but found it slow at times. Like any other shared wifinetwork, it depends how many are using it. I got plenty of work done, even in the 'badlands' of the Northern Fells where coverage was uninterrupted. There's space to work, too, with two-abreast or single seats in first class, all at tables, and power points for laptops or mobiles. A light lunch was served after Preston (12.15pm), including an excellent glass of Malbec. We arrived in Glasgow, 10 minutes late, at 14.10pm, my city-to-city journey time being 4 hours and 40 minutes.
Verdict: I would probably have got there faster by plane, but by train I'd eaten well (twice), relaxed, enjoyed the scenery and managed to do a lot of work. Virgin has set the standard for first class rail.
Fares: This return journey booked one week in advance through thetrainline.com cost £139.50 in first class, or from £94.35 in standard class. Walk-up fares are £384 in first class or from £114.70 in standard, with higher walk-up standard class fares if I had travelled at peak times.