Ask a travel manager what they want for Christmas and the ability to buy international rail tickets through corporate booking channels is likely to figure high up the list of work-related wishes.

A recent survey of more than 60 buyers by the UK and Ireland’s Institute of Travel Management found 45 per cent were dissatisfied with the availability of UK rail content in booking tools and a whopping 75 per cent were dissatisfied with availability of European Union rail content.

In a similar survey of more than 150 travel managers conducted earlier this year by BTN Europe, 31 per cent of respondents said rail content was limited or very limited, while just 29 per cent said it was very comprehensive. In comparison, 58 per cent of buyers rated their OBT’s air content very comprehensive.

The EU isn’t happy with the obstacles to buying train tickets either. “Rail is our flagship mode of transport… however, it is also the one which faces the biggest hurdles,” said Walter Goetz, head of cabinet for the EU’s transport commissioner, at the GBTA Sustainability Summit in Brussels last month.

The frustrations travel managers face with rail were summarised in a webinar presented in September by BT4Europe, which lobbies regulators on behalf of 13 European travel management associations. “Booking tools primarily allow for air, car rental and hotel reservations but they seldom include rail,” said sustainability working group chair Angela Lille. “If they do, the rail operators often do not allow cross-border ticketing. Booking capability is limited to travellers from the rail operator’s domestic market.

“We need rail transportation options fully integrated into all reservations systems for business travel without any restrictions for cross-border ticketing,” Lille concluded.

To put it another way “it’s about making the visible invisible,” said Emmanuel Mounier, secretary general of travel technology sector lobbying organisation EU Travel Tech, at the GBTA summit. EUTT claims invisibility of rail in indirect distribution channels is a key reason that 11 million passengers each month fly when they could take the train.

Understanding why rail is invisible, and what can be done to make it visible, is complicated. Within the corporate travel ecosystem, the consensus is that the fault lies mainly with rail providers.

“In the air industry everything is more or less consolidated into one place, which is the global distribution system,” says Cédric Lefort, senior director for solutions engineering at BCD Travel. “It is far less fragmented than rail. Every rail provider has it own system and its own way to distribute content and is not making all of its content available via the standard solutions. You just have access to a piece of it.

“Most packages you need are not available via an online booking tool or the agency. You can only have access if you book via the website of the rail provider. It’s very difficult for the GDSs or OBTs to develop all connections to all this content.”

For these reasons, says Lefort, “we are always running after the train.”

Paul Dear, senior director for supplier services at SAP Concur, summarised the scale of the challenge equally memorably at the BTN Group’s Tech Talk event in London last month. “If you think New Distribution Capability is confusing,” he said, “it’s kindergarten stuff compared with rail.”

EUTT’s position is that this unsatisfactory situation is deliberate, arguing that many European rail providers are state-owned monopolies with little incentive to change. “Rail companies are not interested in getting into commercial agreements with third-party intermediaries,” Mounier told BTN Europe. “They consider that sticking to their own distribution channels is sufficient.”

I’m convinced from a technical standpoint the operators could do whatever they want – the obstacles are mainly commercials and business models

It is certainly one explanation why, says BT4E secretary Lotten Fowler, “there is no IATA [International Air Transport Association] for rail.” IATA gives the managed travel sector a standardised means of paying for air travel and a framework for journeys involving two or more carriers. IATA also grants travel agents a single licence to sell seats on all the association’s member airlines.

In rail, in contrast, every agency (in fact every different national entity of that agency) has to obtain a separate licence from every rail operator. “TMCs do not want to invest in licences for a rail provider which is not local,” says Lefort.

Bleak as this situation may appear, technical, commercial and regulatory solutions are emerging which may yet make rail visible. One growing hope is aggregators: effectively GDSs for the rail market. Silverrail has been selling this concept for a decade, and now, following interruption by Covid, UK-based rail tech giant Trainline is also throwing its weight behind the idea.

At the Tech Talk event, representatives of booking tools Concur, Cytric and GetThere all indicated they are likely to work with Trainline to some extent. On the TMC front, Trainline global distribution and business solutions director Liz Emmott says her company is rolling out across Europe for CWT, with more agencies in the pipeline.

Aggregators offer both technical and regulatory relief. They are able to take application programming interface-based content feeds (APIs) from all the rail operators and funnel them into a single, global API pipe to TMCs and OBTs. Additionally, “what we’re working on is a sub-licensing model whereby we hold the licence and then all the TMCs, OBTs and GDSs we work with are able to operate on it,” says Emmott. This is already the case in Italy.

Another factor helping to unlock the market is growing competition in some European countries, notably Spain, Italy and France. Consequently, says Emmott, rail operators are telling Trainline they want more business travel sales.

However, it remains the case, Emmott admits, that “some are more open than others”, which is why Lefort speaks for many managed travel professionals when he views regulation as unavoidable. “If we want to push people to travel more by rail, we need to have regulation,” says Lefort. “I’m convinced from a technical standpoint the operators could do whatever they want. The obstacles are mainly commercials and business models.”

Hopes lie mainly with an impending EU regulation called Multimodal Digital Mobility Services, a legal framework to ensure access to all rail content for all distribution channels. Draft legislation is expected in the first half of 2023.

EU Travel Tech has lobbied the European Commission hard on this issue, and Mounier is semi-optimistic. “If you look at the documents issued by the Commission, it understands the problem and is looking at potential solutions,” he says.

“We are confident there will be something proposed by the Commission but then it has to be adopted by the lawmakers, which are the Council [comprising the EU’s member states] and the Parliament. There might be resistance because most rail undertakings are still state-owned. They could degrade the proposal.”

Consequently, Mounier has a message for travel managers. “It’s important for all stakeholders including business travellers to voice their concerns and for decision makers to hear them,” he urges.

GBTA has been doing exactly that, as has BT4E, whose chairman Patrick Diemer is perhaps more confident of success than Mounier. Referring to the EU’s core target of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030, he says: “My impression from our dealings with the European Commission is that it is determined to get this done for its Fit for 55 strategy.”

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