James Dunne has been around trains long enough to know the pain points for travel agents when booking rail travel.
Dunne, along with founding partners Lachlan McCallum, and Kew
Muthalif – all three are former Rail Europe Australasia executives –
launched Rail Online in 2021 and have moved at express speed to build
the business across Europe, UK, North America and Australia.
As Rail Online’s chief executive, Dunne spent considerable time
talking to travel agents to help him understand their needs – and the
challenges they encountered – when booking rail.
He discovered agents were invariably concerned by a significant price
differential between the fare advertised on the route carrier’s website
and the price available to the travel agent.
“Combined with high booking fees, it made it difficult for the agent
to add a margin on the product and be price competitive,” Dunne says.
The way we operate is that a refund for an eligible ticket, whether it’s full or partial, will be immediately available to the agent from funds we’ve set aside.
That was not all. There was a lengthy refund process and ticket exchange process to deal with when customers requested changes.
“When I started to work on the building blocks around Rail Online, I
wanted to address all three of those issues – booking fees, price
differential and refunds – within our business model.
“At the moment, we don’t charge booking fees, because we want the
travel agent to be competitive. We’re also putting in a lot of time and
resources to managing the exchange and refund functionality.”
As a result, agents booking through Rail Online have the freedom and
flexibility to self-manage all itinerary changes and refunds, saving
“An agent’s time is precious,” Dunne says. “They don’t want to go
back and forth querying an exchange, or a refund. The way we operate is
that a refund for an eligible ticket, whether it’s full or partial, will
be immediately available to the agent from funds we’ve set aside.”
A growing call for less carbon-intensive travel
The timing of Rail Online’s launch has come at a time when Europe is
responding to demands for less carbon-intensive travel. The French
government is banning short flights between cities where a rail link
exists, while Germany has introduced a nine-euro monthly train ticket
which allows use of local and regional trains during a three-month
A survey commissioned by the Association of German Transport
Companies showed that 52 million of the cheap tickets were sold over the
period of around three months up until the end of August.
“The nine-euro ticket shows that mobility behaviour can be changed
with a simple and clearly understandable offer, low prices and the
extended nationwide validity,” said DLR Institute for Transport Research
director, Professor Meike Jipp.
Spain has taken the hint by offering free local and middle-distance
rail travel. Until 31 December, passengers – including foreign visitors –
can apply for a rail pass at stations or on the Renfe app.
All this was happening as Dunne and his team found a significant
investor in the business, Dubai-based Dale Ventures, which has secured a
20% stake in the company.
“The travel market has been waiting for a service like Rail Online
since the advent of e-ticketing in the rail sector, and this desire is
only bolstered by pent-up demand related to the pandemic,” said Dale
Ventures founder and CEO, Dale W. Wood.
“Digital ticketing is poised for major innovation, and the Rail Online team are ahead of their time,” Dale added.
Rail Online also has a new rail technology partner in SilverRail,
operating from offices in Boston, London, Brisbane and Stockholm, from
where it strives to overcome rail’s ageing legacy infrastructure to
deliver digitally-enabled seamless booking services, including
e-ticketing, journey planning and distribution.
“There is often insufficient data to allow rail customers to make the
best travel decisions. And for agencies, rail is fragmented, lacks
standards and is expensive to sell and manage,” SilverRail says.
SilverRail’s distribution solution helps OTAs to access “deep” rail content from multiple markets through a single API.
Dunne says SilverRail will be a valuable partner in helping to solve
the complexities of the rail sector. “You have rail companies that are
essentially extensions of their own government. They all have their own
different systems, their own different back offices, their own executing
processes. Trying to standardise all this is a bit tricky.
“Airlines had the benefit of IATA being established decades earlier.
There were a generation ahead of rail with universal standardisation
across ticketing standards, codes, the GDS. It was all fairly
Dunne says SilverRail is passionate about the world of rail and is helping to solve wider transportation issues.
“Not only do they deal in the space where we operate, which is the
aggregation of rail content, which is then uploaded to OTA websites such
as ours, they also work with cities, in terms of planning and the
systems that work behind their public transport infrastructure. They’re
very much in the space of the urban transit model.”
Dunne is confident the backing of Dale Ventures will support the
company in its goal to become “the world’s most valued and frequently
used travel app for rail and public transport”.
“With the rapid advancement of digital ticketing in the rail sector, it’s time for a new player and we’re it,” Dunne says.