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The French state-owned rail company SNCF will start phasing out its Rail Europe brands on Thursday as it launches a pan-European website as part of what should be a simpler booking process for passengers wishing to travel across the continent.
While rail remains at the heart of the SNCF business, the extension of the French Voyages-sncf.com brand across Europe and the imminent launch of new apps and associated sites, underlines the company’s move to become a broader transport and travel provider.
Passengers are expected to benefit from a swifter, more extensive, booking system. But the increased investment in online booking is also a defensive move given concern that internet companies such as Google could usurp the online sales market.
SNCF president’s, Guillaume Pepy, recently said the interests of consumers and the travel industry could be undermined by apparently neutral, but dominant, search engines that might control information and potentially charge operators.
The launch of Google Flight, in particular, which has some element of paid inclusion in its search results, has implications that alarm the French rail operators.
Yves Tyrode, managing director of Voyages-sncf.com, which recorded sales of €3.3bn in 2011, said that its own relaunch and online innovation would allow the firm “to become a key player in e-travel in the face of worldwide competition by powerful stakeholders”.
The company will also launch a site early in 2013 that will combine different forms of transport between any two fixed points, allowing customers to book cars and purchase travel options, including rail tickets and flights from more than 180 European airlines.
Barbara Dalibard, head of SNCF voyages, said there was still work to be done integrating the rail ticketing systems before the full goal was achieved: “We need to make sure our customers can travel from the north of Europe to the south on one standard ticket.”
E-ticketing, via the 4.5m mobile apps so far downloaded, is expected to expand out across the continent from France’s high-speed network.
Customers outside Europe will continue to be directed to websites with the Rail Europe brand.