For the past two decades, low-cost carriers have dominated the European skies, enticing both business and leisure travelers with bargain fares. This led to a squeeze on inter-regional rail, which experienced a contraction related to pricing challenges.

However, as security becomes more challenging to travelers and airport corridors become congested rail, has picked up some momentum in recent years. Many travelers, especially demanding business travelers, have prioritized simplicity, speed, comfort and convenience over just cost. Traveling directly from city center to city center is one of the simplest and most convenient ways to travel, avoiding long travel times due to traffic congestion on airport roads, as well as any related transportation costs. In fact, certain city pairings may perform better on rail than air, as GoEURO discovered with its recent analysis. All in all, rail is enjoying increased consideration by travelers as a viable alternative to air for international travel.

Massive growth ahead

Surprisingly, even with its renewed popularity and entrenched systems, most rail tickets are purchased on-site at the train station. In some markets, such as the UK, it is incredibly rare for rail to be booked in advance online. Ian Cairns, UK Sales Director at Trainline, emphasizes how great of an opportunity this is:

“In the UK, around 70% of rail is currently booked at the station. Offering prebooking could be a huge growth opportunity for online channels.”

While this only represents the UK market, there are opportunities throughout the continent to port inventory from in-station systems to online platforms. Moving the current market to online booking would already represent a lucrative chunk of rail reservations. This movement has already begun, with meta search platforms like Rome2Rio now testing online train ticket sales.

When considering how demand for rail is evolving to include more journeys traditionally taken by plane, the market grows even bigger, according to Christoph Klenner, Secretary General of the European Technology & Travel Services Association:

“Currently 90-95% of European rail journeys are national. Cross-border rail is between 5-10%, but we believe there is a significant potential to grow that proportion of cross-border rail. At the same time, domestic air travel is declining in a number of markets – air passengers are 80-90% international in Europe. It’s a huge opportunity for railways to share in the international travel market.”

Rail suppliers are well-positioned to embrace this opportunity. By offering bookable inventory within global distribution systems, rail becomes a viable alternative to air travel. Access to inventory is especially key when dealing with travel agents, who must be able to see and book a particular journey in advance. Waiting to book a ticket at a train station won’t work well for managed travel.

And even for the unmanaged traveler, booking online has become second nature. Given the way much of travel is currently booking online, the expectation to search and buy a ticket for a specific trip via a digital channel is already well-established. Not having an online channel can be frustrating to the traveler, and a focus on the traveler experience starts organically with the search-and-book process.

Explore more on rail here.