Rail Revolution? A Travel Pro Can Dream

By | June 14, 2017

[UPDATE, June 23, 2017: Expedia completed its acquisition of a majority stake in SilverRail. Terms were not disclosed.]

[UPDATE, June 16, 2017: Adds information about Amadeus Cytric.]

Announcing plans to acquire a majority stake in rail distribution and IT firm SilverRail, Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi last month said rail was “ready for an online revolution.” It can’t come too soon.

Attempting to integrate rail content into corporate travel programs is not for the faint of heart. The rail sector is fragmented, inconsistent and disconnected. Progress is needed especially in Europe where rail is used frequently for business travel.

Rail’s lingering legacies and some outdated technology are mostly to blame. “Unlike air travel, which was internationalized quickly, or car standards, railways until the advent of high-speed rail were really national affairs,” said Will Phillipson, president and co-founder of SilverRail, during an April interview. “Passenger rail was supported by the state, with a single railway carrier by country. The need for interoperability was non-existent.”

Problems still are apparent even within the same country. “If someone is trying to go down one side of the U.K., go across and up the other side, they need several tickets,” explained HRG global travel services director Ian Windsor. He pointed out that the United Kingdom has 27 train operating companies. “Some offer mobile tickets, some paper, some you have to pick up at the station. Some [tickets] allow you to use the Underground, some won’t.”

Rail content and functionality particularly challenge corporate online booking tools.

“It is more complex than it should be because of the market dynamics,” said Mia Andersson, an associate with the Festive Road consultancy. “Rail content is a key driver of what OBT you will choose. There are many discussions internally in corporates at the moment about the major rail-spend markets and if they can use the same OBT. The answer is a different OBT in each market, but your company wants you to pick one.”

Certain rail processes are easier if travelers book directly, though of course that threatens consolidated data and risk management practices. “Punch-out” solutions from corporate booking and agency systems leverage direct links to local rail companies and may work well from the traveler’s perspective. Single-sign-on brings them seamlessly to these websites. “However, it’s more complex from the corporate perspective when using multiple punch-outs,” Andersson explained. “They need data collection and need to track travelers.”

railAt least in the United Kingdom, HRG’s punch-out to the Trainline intermediary works pretty well, according to Windsor. There is integration with the TMC’s back-office, he said, and “we get management information.”

At FCM Travel Solutions, “we work with several intermediaries,” according to Jordy Staelen, managing director for the TMC in France and Switzerland. “We mainly work with Amadeus, which works pretty well with the French railway. But to issue a train ticket from Italy, we need to connect to another system. We work with SilverRail and Trainline. Sometimes we do a direct connect if there is no other solution. In Switzerland, there is no API to the Swiss railway. It is impossible to automate the connection with them so we just have to go to the website to book.”

Corporate booking tool search displays showing rail and air together sometimes are possible and sometimes not. Amadeus has been vocal about modernizing rail selling and distribution systems. It offers a “modular” technology approach for operators. High-speed service Thalys and Swedish operator SJ are among those deploying parts of the solution. Meanwhile, through a 2016 partnership with content aggregator AccessRail, Amadeus-connected agencies can book 18 rail and bus operators in 26 countries “on the same screen as air travel,” according to the Amadeus 2016 global report.

The Amadeus Cytric corporate booking tool has direct connections with Deutsche Bahn, Evolvi (U.K. rail aggregator), NS International (Netherlands), SNCB (Belgium), SNCF (France) and Trainline. There are punch-outs to SBB (Switzerland), the Deutsche Bahn booking portal and, expected in the third quarter, Renfe (Spain). A connection with SilverRail brings in Amtrak, Renfe, SJ and, planned for the third quarter, Via Rail Canada. Integration with the Amadeus Rail Sales Platform will add another connection to SJ (scheduled for the current quarter) and Italy’s Trenitalia (fourth quarter).

Concur As Microcosm

A look at market-leading corporate booking tool Concur Travel shows the many nuances. It provides access to content from various rail operators, sourced from GDSs and direct connections. Reflecting operators’ range of maturity, features and available services are inconsistent from one to the next. Knowing whether and how one can exchange a ticket can be problematic.

For example, there’s a direct connect to Trainline, a platform encompassing 86 rail operators. Users must contact Trainline directly for changes or cancellations. Sales are “instant purchase,” according to Concur documentation, meaning users can’t hold reservations or use a pre-trip approvals process. Seat maps are not supported. Concur doesn’t provide e-receipts. Its mobile app doesn’t offer Trainline reservations.

Concur also has a direct connection with Evolvi (Concur clients can configure the system for that or for Trainline, but not both). To use it, Concur customers must set up “a private U.K. train booking site set specifically to the train travel booking policies of the company,” according to a Concur user guide. That means no commingled air and rail search results.

The same is true when using Concur to book Eurostar tickets via a GDS configuration. If configured with a direct connection to Eurostar part-owner SNCF (French rail), then users can conduct mixed air/rail searches.

International high-speed rail companies like Eurostar are seen as more advanced than most national railways and more attentive to corporate travel needs. Booking Eurostar through Concur, for example, affords the user lots of conveniences: policy parameters, central billing options, trip cancellations and changes. TMCs can process refunds.

But there are gaps. Users can see Eurostar seat maps, but again only if using the direct connection. In cases where Eurostar assigns seats automatically, the Concur Travel itinerary “will not reflect the Eurostar seat assignment in the expected area,” according to Concur. Instead, TMCs may insert seat info in “an unassociated itinerary remark” that Concur includes at the bottom of the itinerary. Meanwhile, because each Eurostar source (Sabre, Amadeus, Galileo and SNCF direct-connect) classifies train cabins differently, Concur users should be mindful when configuring policy controls.

Concur also has direct connections to SNCF and Germany’s Deutsche Bahn. For both, trips can be cancelled via the Concur connection but not changed. For both, users can see mixed air and rail search results. With Deutsche Bahn, if they select a rail option, they’re taken to the operator’s web portal to complete the booking. Bookings are instant purchase. Trips can be cancelled via the Concur connection but, as with Deutsche Bahn bookings of any kind, the traveler must contact the operator to make changes.

Meanwhile, accessing SilverRail’s API enables Concur to “display rail content in a consistent manner, regardless of rail carrier or point of sale, and provide a simple and efficient user experience,” according to SilverRail. Concur’s SilverRail connection currently gives users access to the Spanish and Swedish rail systems.

Again, these connections do not allow for changes. For Spain’s Renfe, for example, “exchangeable tickets are not supported,” according to Concur documentation. “Renfe cannot change these trips at the train station as [its] reservation system cannot access trips booked outside of their website or internal tools. Concur and SilverRail plan on supporting trip exchange in the future.” Concur also is working to provide mixed air/rail searches including content furnished by SilverRail by early 2018.

For now, SilverRail is the merchant of record for Renfe and Swedish rail bookings. “The TMC as the merchant of record will be supported by the second quarter of 2017,” according to Concur information.

Concur noted that it plans to add more rail operators via SilverRail this year, including Italy’s Trenitalia and Belgium’s SNCB.

That is if Concur’s split with Expedia’s Egencia doesn’t get in the way.

The SilverRail Stretch

The Expedia-SilverRail transaction is expected to close in the middle of this year. Expedia’s Egencia division first connected to SilverRail’s API in 2010 to bring in Amtrak. Last summer, the partnership expanded. The connection now allows Egencia customers to access Amtrak.com functions within their programs. Those include e-ticketing, corporate rates, the display of onboard amenities ticket cancellation. Also last year, Expedia incorporated SilverRail into its U.K. point of sale.

In rail, there are few cross-border standards on pricing or distribution. Speaking on May 31 at a Cowen conference, Expedia CFO Mark Okerstrom said one goal is to “standardize rail fares, standardize all of the availability information and ultimately serve it up in a way that either the rail company themselves can transact online or corporate travel firms, like Egencia, can serve it up in their business, or increasingly, online travel agencies like the ones that we own serve that up to their customers.”

On the distribution side, SilverRail’s ambition is to be a GDS for rail, or as Phillipson said, “the ITA Software of rail,” acknowledging that may “be a stretch.” It already aggregates 35 rail carriers.

It has a web-based agent interface but Phillipson said the ideal approach is for TMCs to connect to the SilverRail API, which according to the company provides “a single, integrated service for shopping, booking, and purchasing tickets across multiple carriers.” That allows them to use traveler profiles and natively access bookings.

Travelers can’t make use of some features on certain rail operators’ mobile apps — like calling up a boarding pass — if they initially booked through an indirect channel. On the IT side, SilverRail is pushing airline-like functionality. That would include populating rail bookings with information from travel management profiles, integrating air and rail search displays and multi-modal tickets, facilitating mobile ticketing and boarding pass access, and allowing for exchanges, cancellations and various payment methods across channels.

“Customers have expectations,” Phillipson said, “and those are being led by online tools and services that other modes of transport provide.”

He said work is underway with rail operators “one by one.”

“Railways are entering a precarious place over the next few years,” Phillipson added. “They need to redefine relevance. Many still are living as government-owned monopolies. There’s also competition from rideshare and intercity buses. They have to be where customers are looking.”

According to SilverRail, it also has partnered with Deem, GetThere, KDS, nuTravel and Traveldoo. It claims more than 1,500 corporate customers.

Additional info: There are pockets in North America where rail is useful for business travel, notably Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. Amtrak participates on the SilverRail platform. It’s also available through GDSs and booking tools including Concur, Sabre GetThere and Egencia. Organizations booking as part of a corporate program only can do so through third parties “but the functionality is basically the same as through Amtrak.com,” according to an Amtrak official. “The biggest difference in the booking path is that Amtrak.com offers more fare options on the initial search. Our corporate partners can leverage the website and the app to make changes and retrieve travel documents the same as any other Amtrak customer.”

According to Concur, its Amtrak direct connection supports mixed air/rail search displays, corporate discount programs and availability in the Concur mobile app. It provides route maps and cancellations (but not changes, which require a cancellation and a new booking).

Concur also connects directly to Via Rail Canada. There is no integrated air/rail display, though Concur described the Via Rail connection as “a superior experience over current GDS booking and improve agency productivity.” It provides the full range of fares and availability (Concur said GDSs don’t). Users can cancel but not change tickets in Concur. Instead, they have to directly email or call Via Rail.

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