In today's growing rail market there's more choice than ever when booking fares, says Dave Richardson
BUSINESSES ARE UNDER increasing pressure to cut costs and go green, and with all the hassle at airports, many more are switching to rail, both within Britain and with Eurostar to Paris and Brussels.
But at first glance, rail fares look extortionate. Virgin's Standard Class open return fare from London to Manchester is £230 and the First Class equivalent £360, even higher than the unrestricted return fare by British Airways of £344.
But look a bit deeper, and you'll find that major savings can be made by booking ahead, even for trains just outside peak business hours. Virgin offers advance one-way fares of £44 in Standard Class and £49.50 each way in First, and even lower fares are possible on certain days.
Rail booking systems now available to businesses and travel management companies promise major savings if you add rail to your travel policy, and don't allow travellers the easy option of booking unrestricted fares. You probably don't allow this for air travel - but do you allow it for rail?
One of the main systems was developed by Harry Weeks Travel before it was sold to Capita. It is marketed to other TMCs as Evolvi and direct to Capita's own business customers as Railooto, part of its Ooto portal of 'Out of the Office' products.
Capita Business Travel director of sales, Paula Cullen, explains: "Many companies go to specialists for some of their requirements, especially rail and hotels.
We recognised this and have developed a suite of products to compete with these specialists. "You can achieve savings of up to 6o per cent on your rail spend by being flexible, but you have to put the options in front of the end user with a self-booking tool.
"We are seeing huge growth in the rail market because of the green issue and service improvements. As Wifi is being rolled out on board more trains, you can use them as a mobile office."
The same system is provided by other TMCs under the brand name, Evolvi, which claims to represent 70 per cent of all UK rail revenue coming from TMCs. The Elgar system used by the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) was closed down at the end of 2007, and by the beginning of April 2009 TMCs had switched to Evolvi.
Ken Cameron, managing director of Evolvi Rail Systems, says: "We have given TMCs the ability to offer their customers the same service for rail travel as for air travel, including compliance with travel policy, management information and documentation.
"With Elgar you needed dedicated skills and staff to book rail travel, but now rail is available on a menu-driven screen."
A weak point of the Railooto/Evolvi system up to now was the lack of a ticket on departure service. But tickets can be printed on a desktop system at the client company's premises, collected from a walk-up kiosk also on the site, or printed by the TMC and delivered to the traveller.
But from this summer tickets booked through the system can be collected from the national ticket on departure network available at all major stations. Trials were due to start in April with full roll-out within a couple of months.
Evolvi's trade relations director, Jon Reeve, says rail has huge growth potential for TMCs. ATOC figures show total expenditure on booking UK business journeys by rail of about £1.7 billion in 2006-07, but only £244 million of this was booked by TMCs.
With total usage of the UK rail network likely to grow by between 30-50 per cent over the next 10 years, more TMCs need to offer rail to provide a complete service to their customers.
"Our system encourages the end user to book the lowest available fare, and will flag up when this course of action has not been taken," says Reeve.
"We are seeing a typical price reduction of 18-30 per cent when a ticket is booked through Evolvi rather than a walk-up fare. Procurement managers face greatly increased costs if their travellers are allowed to book walk-up fares and then reclaim them through expenses."
A typical scenario where savings can be made is to book two single tickets rather than a return. As business people generally know when meetings will start but not when they finish, they can often book a non-refundable ticket on a particular train for the outward leg, then a flexible single available on any train for their return.
The other major system provider is TheTrainline, which has a dedicated business portal providing a lot of management information, but otherwise is the same as the online system that anyone can use. It also works with some TMCs although its main focus is to work with businesses directly.
Head of account management, Claire Morrissey, says: "We still have companies coming to us for whom rail is the poor relation, but we work with them to drive down costs. If we have a customer with a very large spend on a particular route, we can go to a train operating company and negotiate.
"The larger train operating companies have intelligent revenue management systems and quota control is driven by demand. They won't give away their product, but some of them are interested in getting passengers to switch from flights."
The main operators competing with air are Virgin Trains, which operates from London to Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, the West Midlands and North Wales; and National Express East Coast, which has taken over the former GNER routes from London to Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness. Virgin is planning to introduce a high-frequency timetable on the Manchester and Birmingham routes with departures every 20 minutes for most of the day - and that means a great many seats to fill.
The Trainline is at the forefront of new ticketing technology, which will deliver electronic tickets to mobiles or smart cards from 2009
An encoded message on a mobile phone or smart card will be used to open electronic gates at stations, and can be read by ticket inspectors using hand-held machines.
Smart cards are similar to the Oyster Cards in use on the London tube and bus network, but TheTrainline's version will have much greater capability and management information. Companies will be able to keep track of which trains their staff actually travel on as opposed to the journey that was booked.
"Smart ticketing is being driven by the train operating companies and is part of some of their franchise agreements," explains Claire Morrissey. "TheTrainline will start to introduce it from 2009 and we are doing the development work now to be ready for demand."
Another online system called Raileasy is aimed at the individual rather than the company, although it does plan to introduce corporate accounts by the end of the year. Tickets can either be collected on departure or mailed out to the business traveller.
Users can opt to find the cheapest fare for any combination of journeys they put into the system, including two single fares. In some cases, Raileasy says that the First Class fare might actually be lower than in Standard Class.
"Raileasy is designed to encourage customers to book as early as possible, but you can still change your dates of travel as advance fares are amendable," says a spokesman.
"As long as you amend your journey before the day of travel, you just have to pay whatever level the advance fares have reached for your chosen journey."
Although online systems have developed rapidly over the last couple of years, Global Distribution Systems are also moving forward and have the capability to book overseas rail systems, too. Eurostar is now being integrated with airlines on the same display, and rail booking is being simplified for leading European systems, including those in France and Germany.
Travelport UK Rail is the first integrated product for Galileo and Worldspan users, now that both systems are under the same ownership. Travelport works in partnership with TheTrainline for booking UK services, but as a GDS its scope is much wider.
Travelport enterprise solutions director, Will Owen Hughes, says: "The application is more user-friendly now it is powered by TheTrainline, and TMCs no longer need an ATOC licence to sell rail.
"The key advantage of using a GDS is getting the whole content on one system, including rail, air, car rental and hotel."
Travelport hopes that Railteam, the alliance of European high-speed operators which also includes Eurostar, will have a common reservations system available in due course. In the meantime, its RailMaster platform includes the national operators in France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal and Benelux.
Sabre is developing what it describes as "the world's first universal rail booking product", the Sabre Rail Platform. It has already integrated Evolvi into this, and is developing a system that will make any participating rail network easy to book without the often complex procedures and training needed at present.
Amadeus, however, is developing its own system, which will be available to all TMCs whichever GDS they are using. It has already integrated Eurostar with the airline display and is introducing Heathrow Express and Gatwick Express, including combined tickets on participating airlines.
It started testing a UK rail booking product in April with a planned full release this summer, and is looking to add major European services shortly.
UK marketing services manager Rob Golledge says: "Our competitors have partnered with TheTrainline or Evolvi, but we felt rail needed a whole new look which will be better than anything offered at present. Rail will be integrated with air and hotels which will be a major advantage."
The fact that GDS is investing so heavily in rail booking systems shows that it is looking ahead to the day when the rail renaissance is complete.
In the UK that has only just begun with Eurostar's high-speed line open, but the domestic network is struggling to cope with increased usage. The possibility of new high-speed lines being built looks remote, with a lack of political will to commit to the huge investment required for such a project.
Much is happening in Europe where France, Germany and Italy already have large high-speed networks. Spain has just extended its system to include Madrid-Barcelona and Madrid-Malaga as well as Madrid?Seville, while a new high?speed line from Brussels to Amsterdam is due to open next year.
These networks can be booked online, and TMCs have more booking facilities available as they await greater connectivity through GDS. The Railagent system covers the whole of Europe and further afield, while Rail Europe provides a similar service.
Railagent can book Amtrak services in the US, including high-speed trains operating from Washington to New York and Boston. Italy is one of its key markets for TMCs, in particular the high-speed route from Rome to Florence and Milan.
Wherever you are travelling, the message is to pre-book rather than turn up and book on the day.
Advantage Business Travel director Norman Gage comments: "If you book on the day you could face a long queue, and how do you justify that when your senior directors may be earning £60,000 a year?
"Some train operating companies are now wanting to talk to us directly, and we can help our customers track their rail bookings and show how they are performing."
Although it is possible to book rail directly and see all the options, rail is one area where the skills of a TMC can more than justify the transaction fee. Despite moves by UK rail operators to simplify fares, rail booking is still a highly complex task for the novice.