Selling rail: can SilverRail improve the industry’s online offering?

23 January 2018 (Last Updated January 23rd, 2018 09:18)

Online customer service and ticket-buying can be very limited and outdated in the rail industry. So what’s the key to promoting the industry and making it easier for travellers to buy tickets, wherever they are? Will Phillipson, co-founder of UK-based travel technology company SilverRail, speaks about the company’s mission to improve rail’s online offering.

Selling rail: can SilverRail improve the industry’s online offering?
The drive to improve rail’s online presence is growing. Credit: SilverRail.

With high-speed rail projects gaining traction, international passengers are increasingly looking to rail as a cheaper, greener and more comfortable alternative to aviation. However, the commercial potential for selling rail tickets has been squandered by the industry’s poor online offering. Planning trips and buying tickets is still a pain, with many rail operators selling solely through their own websites or a smattering of local agencies.

Online travel retailers and corporate agencies either have not sold rail, or have done so only via selective agreements with certain carriers. For the traveller booking a trip to a particular location through their preferred website or agent, taking the train is often not part of the equation.

Therefore, the quest is on to bring rail’s online customer experience into the 21st Century, and UK-based technology firm SilverRail believes it has the answer. The company not only aims to enhance rail carriers’ ‘digital infrastructure’ by upgrading their outdated IT systems, but makes it considerably easier for them to distribute tickets via third-party channels, therefore increasing a carriers’ global exposure.

“Both of these technology focuses – the infrastructure and distribution – exist within almost every other part of the travel industry, but not really the rail industry,” says Phillipson. “We’re the only ones from a distribution perspective that has pulled in as much content and provide it through a single application programming interface that is available in multiple countries.”

Lack of standardisation in passenger rail

According to Phillipson, the slow and inefficient customer experience of booking train journeys pales in comparison to the aviation industry. Global organisations such as IATA have pioneered rules that standardise aviation; for example, airports have an individual code that is universally recognisable and allows them to be accessed and managed consistently by online systems.

The railway industry’s lack of standardisation procedures means that the languages used by rail’s IT systems differ internationally, making it a technical challenge for railway carriers to connect with travel agencies.

“Railways have grown up sponsored by national governments and they’ve been national assets.”

“Railways have grown up sponsored by national governments and they’ve been national assets,” says Phillipson. “Before the EU, the train stopped at the border. Airlines from the very beginning were international; you had all these various different organisations which were there to help coordinate national governments and bilateral agreements.”

However, the drive to improve rail’s online presence is growing, and not just as the international market opens up. An increasingly younger demographic of rail passenger is more likely to book journeys online via mobile phones or other devices.

“Rail carriers, by and large, have been around for decades if not a century or more, and the IT systems tend to be fairly old and have largely been built to support walk-up tickets, with somebody behind the counter,” says Phillipson. “What we’re seeing are increasingly younger consumers using their mobile phones and saying ‘Hey Google, I need to get to Lyon’, and the first thing coming up on Google is BlaBlaCar, not the SNCF.”

Fixing the online travel experience

To address this, SilverRail is offering carriers and travel managers what it claims is the world’s first unified platform for global rail. Known as SilverCore, the platform translates travel data from multiple rail carrier partners into a single language, allowing information to be presented to travel agencies through a single API. This allows agencies to discover and distribute tickets more easily and to seamlessly integrate a rail option on their websites.

In 2016, Expedia contracted the company to help sell train tickets on Expedia.co.uk, a service which has since been extended to German customers via Expedia.de. The travel site went on to acquire SilverRail in 2017.

“The bottom-line benefit [for agencies] is that they go to a single supplier,” says Phillipson. “Once they’re able to access multiple rail carriers, it turns into a commercial conversation as opposed to a technical one.”

“SilverRail will now be able to distribute SNCF tickets to travel management companies and online agencies worldwide.”

Instead of having to seek out bespoke connections with travel agencies – which Phillipson claims companies like Expedia cannot justify the cost of doing – carriers can turn to SilverRail and use its technical expertise to help translate their rail data into a usable format for agencies with which it is already in partnership.

“What this does, from a carrier perspective, is it gives them a lower cost method of doing it,” says Phillipson. “You have technically minded staff working with you in terms of SilverRail, so it’s a much lower overhead for the rail carrier, and it provides a way of accessing new customers. It expands your consideration set, which is terribly important for rail carriers to maintain relevance as the market skews towards younger demographics.”

A prime example is French rail operator SNCF, which provided SilverRail with access to its inventory last year. The latter will now be able to distribute SNCF tickets to travel management companies and online agencies worldwide, promoting the brand and making it easier for customers to find the right ticket.

“Travel agency distribution is very important to SNCF, especially when addressing corporate customers,” said Pierre Matuchet, senior VP of marketing and information system at Voyages SNCF, in a statement. “Agencies can differentiate themselves by innovating on their technological offer, especially online. The good connectivity to our offers is thus fundamental to the quality of their tools.”

Localising content for international rail services

Making rail tickets more visible to consumers is the ultimate end-goal. However, Phillipson claims the localisation element is a vital aspect to selling train tickets abroad, particularly with regards to payment options in different countries.

“Some carriers in Europe can’t even take credit cards outside of their country,” says Phillipson. “Having a provider that enables distribution allows third parties to focus entirely on being visible in those local markets, and we can provide the functionality to provide localised payment.”

“That’s going to help a rail carrier that doesn’t have a significant investment in marketing and exposure in their country to drive those sales and make them relevant there.”

The benefits of increasing exposure abroad have been capitalised on by Trainline, a UK-based ticket seller which recently expanded its reach into Western Europe. After acquiring French ticket retailer Captain Train, Trainline has been working with companies to supply tickets for journeys in a much broader range of countries, allowing passengers to book European travel in just a few clicks.

“Providing customers across the globe with access to our industry-leading product in their own language makes the entire travel experience more intuitive, encouraging people to opt for rail over other modes of transport, such as air,” said Daniel Beutler, general manager of Trainline International, in a statement. “We are committed to growing the global rail market and this is another step towards ensuring that train will always be the transport mode of choice.”

Moving forward, SilverRail’s current focus will be on providing the specific IT functionality that railway operators need to be able to deliver their offers and products to customers, covering aspects including journey planning, inventory management, scheduling, pricing, booking, payment, ticketing, reporting and administration. This is because rail carriers need to be able to deliver real-time journey information faster in order to meet the expectations of today’s consumers.

“The challenge with the rail ecosystem is the quality of the underlying IT system and the quality of the data,” he says. “At the moment it can be really difficult for a customer who wants to take the train to figure out how to do so. Ultimately, if we get rid of that friction, people will be able to walk into a train station, grab a coffee, get on the train, get their seat, travel in style, and not have all that hassle of going through airports.