RailAgents booking through Rail Online have the freedom and flexibility to self-manage all itinerary changes and refunds.

This startup wants to speed up rail bookings for travel agents

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This startup wants to speed up rail bookings for travel agents
Photo Credit: GettyImages/William Barton

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.– James Dunne, chief executive, Rail Online

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 significant time.

“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 summer period.

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 streamlined.”

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.

Source: WiT

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