by Martin Cowen in Vienna
Borderless rail travel in Europe is being held back by a lack of technical standards, according to panellists at last week's Amadeus Rail Forum in Vienna.
The two-day event closed with a debate into the theory and practice of "borderless rail travel".
The consensus was that it already exists - you don't need to change trains between European countries - and the only border is the inability to buy a single ticket for a pan-European rail journey.
Jean-Pierre Martin, head of sales for Thalys, which operates high-speed services in Belgium, France, Netherlands and Germany, said:
"We need standards across the industry. At Thalys we operate in four countries across various channels with different fulfilment issues, types of tickets. From a customer perspective, it can be a nightmare."
To prove this, three senior members of the Amadeus Rail marketing team - Philip Martin, Eve-Marie Morgo and Katrin Heintschel - each tried and failed to book their trip to the conference from Nice to Vienna by rail in a single ticket.
The closest anyone got was booking two tickets in a single transaction through Amadeus' corporate booking tool. However, the journey went via Paris and took twenty five hours.
From a UK leisure travellers' perspective, the situation is even worse. Rail industry consumer champion Mark Smith, who runs www.seat61.com, needed three separate tickets and transactions to get from Buckinghamshire to Vienna.
Pierre Alain Regali runs ebookers in Germany, Switzerland and Austria and also wanted to be able to sell rail. "As on OTA we want to be able to aggregate rail. It's not viable to have a direct connect to all national providers. IATA-type standards would help."
He added that ultimately ebookers needed to get rail into its shopping basket, so that it can create rail-based dynamic packages.
"We want rail on the site because we want to give customers the choice and we need to be able to attach room nights. If we bring customers to a destination, by air or train, we want to add a hotel because this is where we make the money".
Panellists felt that many train operators were too focussed on their domestic operations and that international services were less important. Many agreed that train companies' reluctance to think about retailing as a separate discipline from operations was also holding the industry back.
"If railways started selling tickets through third parties such as the OTAs then it would be good for the business because they would sell more tickets," said Smith.
The European Commission's interest in deregulating European rail was also welcomed. Regali noted that "lack of competition means that rail providers are not pushed to innovate and as an OTA that is what we need. New entrant low-cost carriers drove change in the airline industry but it hasn't happened yet in rail."
Thomas Drexler, Director, Amadeus Rail, concluded that in five years time the landscape will be more competitive, with rail operators forced to compete with each other but also with other forms of transport.
"Rail will be better integrated into the travel ecosystem," he insisted. "Rail will be seen as an option compared with other modes of transport because customers are asking for it. Technology will solve the problem and it will help the industry create its own standards."
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