Rail travel hasn’t always been at the forefront of consumers’ minds when it comes to holiday planning. Domestic trips were often done by car and if travelers in colder climates wanted to head to the beach, they’d most likely fly.

But in the last few years European rail companies have stepped up attempts to get more leisure passengers to use their services. It hasn’t been easy though, due to issues with rail travel itself and with the wider tourism industry.

Many people use rail for independent trips, indeed the holiday starts when you leave, not when you arrive. But I think rail is underused by the mainstream travel industry who insist on packaging people into coaches and flights,” said Mark Smith, founder of rail website The Man in Seat Sixty-One, in an email.

“European train companies don’t help, of course. Short booking horizons (geared to people buying train tickets days or weeks ahead as part of daily life, not planning holidays eight months ahead) and dynamic…rates where you cannot quote a firm price until much closer to departure.”

What can train companies do to take a bigger slice of the travel pie? There seem to be two schools of thought, judging by comments at the recent World Rail Festival in Amsterdam. The first is improving the experience to at least make leisure travelers consider going by rail, the second is investing and creating a dedicated tourism product where the rail journey is actually part of the holiday experience, sort of like an on-land cruise.

Longer But Better

Before 1994, anyone wanting to travel between London and Paris would have either had to fly or use a combination of car, coach and ferry. The Eurostar service changed all that. Although the train journey takes roughly an hour more, the time saved before and afterwards makes it a much more efficient way of getting between the two cities.

Over the years, Eurostar has added extra destinations and in April this year started a new route to Amsterdam. This train’s journey time compares less favorably with London-Paris but Eurostar obviously thinks there is market for rail travel, either for business or pleasure.

“With the Netherlands becoming increasingly popular as a business and tourism destination, the potential for our new route is significant and we look forward to offering our customers a fast, seamless connection between these key European cities,” CEO Mike Cooper said at launch.

Travelers might choose rail for a number of reasons. It could be environmental, it might be because they hate flying or because it is just more convenient. Whatever the cause, high-speed lines are springing up all over the world. As an example, China’s first high-speed line opened in 2008 and by 2025, it is aiming for 38,000 kilometers of track.

These high-speed operators are obviously looking to take some of the market share back from airlines but even those on slower lines want more tourists.

The Caledonian Sleeper runs overnight services between London and Scotland. And while this is one of the longest rail journeys you can do in the UK, the trains are some of the oldest. That’s one of the reasons why Serco, the company that took over running the business in 2015, decided to upgrade the carriages.

A mix of people use the service but not as many come from overseas as the company would like. That’s because at the moment the trains are old and not exactly kitted out for the modern traveler.

The company is about to bring in a new fleet of carriages that will modernize the journey and — it hopes — make it more appealing to overseas travelers. It is using virtual reality to showcase the new trains to passengers in order to generate excitement before they start running.

“One of the things we found going to places like World Travel Market was that our current trains were just not up to the standard people traveling from international destinations would expect,” said Kim Thain, marketing manager.

The Caledonian Sleeper wants to use the new trains — which will feature double beds and en suite rooms —to help it attract a new type of customer, maybe one who hadn’t thought about using a train before.

Marketing Rail Travel

It’s not just about trying to convince tourists to use the train for long journeys. Those selling travel on a smaller scale are looking to generate more business, too.

Great Western Railway is part of First Group — which also owns U.S. intercity bus company Greyhound — and operates trains in the southwest part of the UK.

The company rebranded in 2015 and since then has looked to get more leisure travelers onboard. It ran an advertising campaign using characters from the Famous Five — a series of children’s adventure novels written by English author Enid Blyton — to try and tap into nostalgia and a sense of adventure in order to persuade consumers to use the train.

“We needed to reignite people’s passion for rail travel and to promote GWR as being the gateway to all sorts of adventures in the south west of England London and South Wales,” said Amanda Burns, head of sales and marketing at GWR.

“We had to stop thinking of GWR as getting from A to B and instead give them something much more powerful, which was that feeling.”

Leisure travelers are an obvious target for train companies looking to boost passenger numbers during the middle of the day and at weekends when there are fewer commuters using the trains.

The Luxury Market

GWR, Caledonian Sleeper and other intercity, long distance train services are constantly doing battle with other forms of transport that sometimes can do the journey much quicker, but what if the train journey is the holiday?

Luxury travel company Belmond runs a number of tourist trains, including perhaps the most famous of all, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. All across the world, rail companies are marketing certain journeys under the experience tag.

“The growth in sea cruises should logically mean land cruises can also be expanded, it’s just a lot harder to do on an operational railway,” said The Man in Seat Sixty-One’s Smith.

Cruising is an interesting comparison, especially as it has grown so much in recent years. Rail clearly has its own infrastructure challenges but there is a luxury market for train tourism.

“Tourism does not take place with railways nowadays in general. So it takes place with either automobiles, people are going individually wherever they want to go, or they are flying to sunny beach destinations or they’re going on organized tours with bus operators. But for the railway there is very little left,” said Helmut Mochel, general manager, at Eurasia Trains, which runs a private charter operation on the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian Railways.

“And the segment which I believe is interesting for the railways is that is the upmarket segment.”

To make the most out of this segment Mochel believes rail companies have to do a few things: create experiences, improve the equipment and work better with established travel companies.

“Railways themselves they have usually zero experience of the tourism industry, zero experience in the hospitality industry. So they need to partner with travel agents, tour operators, [and the] marketing organizations of the destinations…they are looking for.”

Photo Credit: A Eurostar train in London St-Pancras. rino54 / Visual Hunt