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Global rail renaissance

When it comes to business travel in the US, railroads are seldom the first option that comes to mind. But promising new developments are in the works which may prompt road warriors to raise rail’s profile. Of course passenger rail services have long been highly developed in Europe, and China is rapidly catching up. But even within North America, the benefits of rail are becoming more apparent.

Certainly rail development is a hugely expensive proposition, and change comes slowly. But even setting aside future possibilities such as Elon Musk’s high velocity tube train, current improvements in technology and infrastructure are bringing enhanced options for business travelers.

“Especially in Europe and also in Asia, there is significant development going on,” says Tom Drexler, director of rail and ground travel at Amadeus, a provider of IT solutions for the global travel and tourism industry.  “Countries are investing a lot of money in high-speed infrastructure and other improvements.”  The results may make rail more attractive than it has been in the past.

Acknowledging that air is clearly dominant, Drexler says that when it comes to some connections getting from Point A to Point B, rail can actually be the preferred option. “Rail is a really serious alternative to air travel,” he says “It’s something that has to be put on the radar screen of people managing business travel.”

Along with adding routes and fielding higher-speed trains, the industry is developing supporting technology that is playing a big part in improving the rail travel picture. The continued development in standardized digital infrastructure is bringing new levels of efficiency to global rail, according to Ami Taylor, senior director, global travel management and account development at SilverRail Technologies.  “For the first time, this makes it significantly easier and simpler to plan, book and pay for rail travel bookings from anywhere to anywhere,” Taylor says.

SilverRail is a provider of railway ticketing solutions with offices in London, Boston, Brisbane and Stockholm. The company has created a digital interface that allows travelers to manage multiple rail bookings on multiple carriers across countries in a consistent manner. When booking international rail, travelers can access local fares, offers and discounts from one single interface for each country they are booking in. US-based travelers who plan to travel within Europe, for example, can now conveniently book their train travel locally, in dollars.

“Sounds simple, but for the rail industry these are fundamental changes that will change the way the world travels,” Taylor says.  She notes that along with simplifying booking, the improvements allow rail to be integrated into the existing booking flow, compare it to air, and plan and book end-to-end journeys. “This gives travelers a wider variety of choice, creates greater visibility of their company’s travel data, and allows them to manage their company’s travel spend more effectively and efficiently to help identify new saving opportunities,” she says.

Bookings have become easier, although there are still shortcomings – including the fact that unlike air travel, rail travel bookings cannot easily be changed or canceled. And making rail an integral part of the travel solution can be a challenge.  “It is much easier for companies to write Eurostar or certain other TGV/ICE programs into their system when the trips are simple and point-to-point,” says Alex McWhirter, who covers the rail beat for Business Traveller, our sister publication in the UK. “The problems arise if the rail booking is a complicated one.”

All Aboard, North America

In the US, perhaps the most important development in passenger rail technology is the expansion of WiFi service. Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods reports that cellular-based WiFi service is now available on a number of routes as part of an ongoing effort to enhance the passenger experience, particularly for business travelers.

“As roads become more congested and most travel options more complicated, business travelers are rediscovering the ease of passenger rail that will take them right into the center of major cities including Washington, DC, New York and Boston,” Woods says. She says that passengers can chose to work, read, visit the café car or sleep, and many have found this to be a more attractive choice than other modes of transportation.

“These stops connect travelers to community and cultural attractions, and travelers have the option to conduct small meetings on the train with access to WiFi,” she explains.  “Trains also offer an environment for people to relax and debrief after a busy slate of meetings.”

Woods says attractive features include the combination of transportation, bedrooms and food service in one package along with an environment that allows passengers to relax the moment they board the train. Travelers also enjoy other pluses such as wider seats with electrical outlets, plenty of leg and headroom, the ability to get up and move around and a generous baggage allowance.

Amtrak has also expanded business class to more trains. Previously available on the Acela Express and Northeast Regional trains, it has recently been introduced on the Cardinal and Auto Train long-distance trains. Along with WiFi, amenities include spacious seating, complementary beverages and special lounge access.

Around the US, new or improved rail links connecting airports with city mass transit systems are also in the works.  Typical is the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s two-phase rail plan for improved rail service to Dulles International Airport that includes construction of a 23-mile extension of the existing Metrorail system. The first phase of the project, completed in July 2014, brought on five new stations, while Phase 2 will add six more.

Similar recent projects have expanded rail service to airports including Dallas/Fort Worth, Salt Lake City, Oakland, Miami and other cities. Others are in the planning stages or in preliminary discussion in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Things are looking up in Canada too. Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, president and CEO of VIA Rail Canada, says passenger rail is experiencing positive growth north of the border as well, including both regional rail serving Montreal and Toronto and light transit rail in other cities across Canada.  “This shift has enhanced the perception of train as a viable method of travel, which in the past had been absent from the landscape,” he says.  “The emergence of regional rail and light transit has created a renaissance for passenger train travel.”

He also notes that the Canadian government’s recent focus on environmental issues bodes well for rail travel, since it stacks up favorably against automobiles when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. Optimism about the future is strong enough, in fact, that VIA Rail Canada is now making plans for expanded infrastructure in the Quebec-Windsor corridor.

Connecting with Rail

For corporate travel, linking up with rail is becoming less problematic. SilverRail recently launched a “rail benefits calculator” that helps business travelers determine the impact of taking the train when it is a viable alternative compared with flying.

Applicable for use in any market and on any route, the calculator displays KPIs such as price, journey time, productivity and even carbon dioxide emissions on an interactive dashboard. As users manipulate the data, they can determine which travel routes offer the greatest benefits if traveled by rail as opposed to air.  The calculator can also be used to forecast the benefits expected if the usage of rail increases.

“This is a great way to determine what will and will not work for a company, based on its own priorities and objectives,” Taylor says. “It gives travel managers all the ammunition needed to get a business case for rail travel approved.”

At the same time, an extra measure of patience may be needed in exploring and following up on rail options, primarily due to the lack of standards compared to the airline industry. “It can be difficult to book rail, and there can be payment and settlement issues,” Drexler explains. But specialized companies are trying to sort out these issues.”  And in the meanwhile, he adds, advantages in pricing and travel time between cities can offset such weaknesses.

All things considered, the European rail situation may be particularly deserving of a closer look, according to Taylor.  “More often than not, people underestimate – or don’t realize – how relevant rail is across Europe and the extent of its demand,” she says. Taylor points to surveys showing that when journey time is 2.5 hours or less, 80

percent of travelers would choose rail travel over air.

“The growth of high-speed rail between key cities in Europe means short journey times are becoming more and more of a reality,” she notes. “As a result, rail travel between them has become the norm and preferred choice.” According to Taylor, the introduction of high speed rail between Madrid and Seville saw market share grow from 16 to 51 percent. Similarly, market share increased by more than 30 percent when France introduced the TGV Sud-Est between Paris and Lyon.

In the UK, Virgin East Coast trains recently announced plans to introduce 42 new services a week between Edinburgh and London, increasing seat capacity by 22,000.  Virgin also intends to introduce a range of new high-speed trains that will substantially reduce journey times from London to Leeds and Edinburgh.

“This introduction of new trains is likely to shift further market share from air to

rail, making rail a serious contender,” according to Taylor.

The Customer Experience

Along with faster trains and more of them, rail providers are paying increased attention to how passengers perceive these services.  “We are witnessing a huge increase and focus on customer experience onboard trains, and many train operating companies are working to improve their onboard experience,” Taylor says. This includes the development of faster and more reliable WiFi aboard trains so that commuters can count on dependable online access.  

While mobile ticketing is not yet the norm in Europe, that seems to be changing.  Taylor reports that more than one-third (37 percent) of bookings across Europe are forecast to be online by the year’s end.  Sweden’s national rail carrier, SJ, currently sells the majority of its tickets online, with 90 percent sold as e-tickets and plans for increasing to 100 percent in the next year.

Taylor says that Sweden is the leader in mobile ticketing and has inspired carriers and train operating companies in neighboring countries to invest time and money in this technology. Virgin Trains is following suit, having announced in February that it is the first franchised rail operator to offer mobile tickets across all types and all routes along the UK west coast mainline.

Looking forward, McWhirter advises checking out available options while keeping in mind advantages for travelers that may be overlooked.  “Everyone knows that Eurostar is unbeatable between London, Paris and Brussels,” he says. “But how many travel managers know that there are now TGVs running between Paris and Barcelona?  Yes, the train takes longer but the staffer can work on board, particularly in first class.”

Drexler agrees that both efficiency and convenience can be enhanced. “Time can be more productive,” he says, adding, “From city center to city center, there is less hassle. There is no need to go through airport security, and it can be easier to work than in a crowded aircraft.”

When these factors are considered along with possible cost reductions, a smaller

carbon footprint and improved business processes, rail deserves a new look.  

By Mark Rowh