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European rail bookings continue to grow even though attempts to broaden access in corporate travel channels have faltered. According to panelists speaking here at the Business Travel Market, high-speed rail operators have neither fulfilled promises for an aggregated reservations platform nor begun sufficient participation in global distribution systems to facilitate multi-railway bookings by travel management companies.
"We all know the problems," said Guild of Travel Management Companies chief executive Anne Godfrey, referring to multiple systems and pricing structures. "TMCs won't wait. They are going to do what they can do and book flights. What we don't want is to have to go to numerous Web sites or make 500 telephone calls."
The Railteam alliance--including Deutsche Bahn, Eurostar, SNCF and Thalys--missed its goal of launching by this year a reservations systemthat handles bookings for all member operators. Eurostar commercial director Nick Mercer said the "common rail platform was shelved."
Regarding cooperative reservations in GDS channels, Mercer said, "It is very difficult with the partner railways to say, 'Why don't we connect through GDSs?' It comes down to cost. What is the cost investment that we have to pay to be in the GDSs? I don't think in the short term you are going to see changes.
"Rail companies are fantastic when they operate within their natural boundaries," Mercer continued. "The problems occur the moment you want to connect between more than one carrier from another. All the systems and fare structures are totally and utterly incompatible. It's not an easy problem to solve."
A Eurostar spokeswoman later explained that Railteam had conducted "a due-diligence study to ascertain the feasibility of uniting all of the booking systems" and determined that costs would be over budget.
Since its creation in July 2007, Railteam's purpose had been to implement seamless, high-speed connections throughout Europe and to create standardized fare structures and distribution. Now the focus is "on Web distribution, enhanced mutual access to reduced fares and e-fulfillment," according to the Eurostar spokeswoman. "Our priority is to improve the customer experience by providing transparency and easy access to a wider range of fares throughout our network."
BTM conference panelists insisted that better booking capabilities should be a priority. "Rail is missing a huge opportunity by not standardizing their products," said GTMC's Godfrey.
"When it comes to selling a Germany-London or Manchester-Frankfurt [ticket], at the moment, you would have to go to three different Web sites to have that trip," said Oliver Schmidt, Deutsche Bahn director of international sales and marketing in the United Kingdom and Ireland. "This is still a major challenge that European rail is facing--how to get the ticket to the customer."
Individual rail operators in some European markets connect to GDSs. According to Sabre Travel Network director of travel supplier distribution Susanne Knobel, rail inventory system integration "is a choice based on market needs and market presence. Each integration is designed around the supplier's specific service offering."
Rail Ticket Volume 'Almost Exactly The Same' As Air
As the recent economic conditions battered European airlines, rail operators oftentimes were the beneficiaries--reservations technology deficiencies notwithstanding. Panelists pointed to the familiar benefits--cost, convenience, productivity and environmental awareness--and said rail continues to take market share from airlines. Rail is "the sector that is showing the most growth, quarter on quarter, year on year," Godfrey said.
"Across the whole of Europe, we almost exactly sell as many rail tickets as we do air tickets," said Carlson Wagonlit Travel U.K. sales director Nigel Turner. "Although air bookings have picked up, rail as a product has kept momentum," largely because business travelers are more productive using rail versus air, which in general are similarly priced.
Meanwhile, work continues on expanding high-speed rail networks in the United Kingdom and throughout Continental Europe. "There are already bits and pieces," said Deutsche Bahn's Schmidt. "By 2020, these bits and pieces will be more of an international network of high-speed travel between European cities, and by 2025 we will have high speed in the U.K." Specific high-speed corridors planned by 2020 include Madrid to Lisbon, Milan to Venice, Barcelona to the south of France and new lines in Austria.
Godfrey, however, said that "difficulties in developing high speed are torturous for many business travelers, because it is needed but the funding isn't there. There are some fairly major infrastructure issues; as soon as you talk about infrastructure, you talk about money--and certainly this side of the pond, there isn't any."
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