Skift Take

A lot of companies say the want to switch planes for trains, but it's only when Europe's borders fully reopen will we know if that can translate into bookings.

Swapping life in the fast lane at a startup accelerator to launch a rail travel company is an unusual career path, but trains could be about to have their moment.

Cat Jones was previously a managing director at London’s Founders Factory, but quit to start Byway, which specializes in flight-free travel and holidays, in March last year.

She said there were raised eyebrows at the time, with the pandemic bedding in, but the timing may just work in her favor, coinciding with a predicted rise in sustainable travel, for both leisure and business, and shifts in working culture.

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Part of Byway’s mission is to become a rail travel aggregator, to join the dots in what can be a complex booking process when multiple countries are concerned. “Business travel is always something we’ve wanted to facilitate, partly because of the technology we’re building,” Jones said. “We’re building dynamic packaging for flight-free travel, which has never been done before.”

Some 68 percent of people want to support green-friendly travel options, according to a recent survey by American Express, and it’s inevitably crossing over to corporate travel.

“The key to international rail uptake is making it as seamless as possible. The global distribution systems and online booking tools make this seamless from an air perspective, but less so for rail where global distribution system content is not available in most markets,” said Josh Collier, head of proposition, rail and ground transportation at Capita Travel and Events.

“To take off, the end-user needs to be able to not just book their London to Brussels Eurostar journey, but a Birmingham to London add-on, and a Brussels to Cologne add-on, all booked on the same booking rather than three separate trips. Suppliers are beginning to offer this functionality, but a lot of travel agencies are likely to not offer this today as an online service.”

Shifting Priorities

Before the pandemic, there wasn’t a huge demand for flight-free travel from the corporate world. But many companies had embarked on setting ambitious carbon reduction targets before the pandemic, and cutting travel was regarded as one way to achieve those.

The pandemic also meant businesses suddenly realized they could still function even with travel almost halted.

Cat Jones, CEO of Byway. Picture: Byway.

Cat Jones, CEO of Byway. Picture: Byway.

ABN Amro, for example, plans to slash its air travel in half compared with 2017 over the next five years, according to reports, and that will involve banning staff from jetting between European offices and making them take the train instead.

Other factors will play a part.

In some European countries, the flights may not even exist. Last year, the French, German, and Austrian governments tied pandemic-related state aid to airlines to demands that the carriers become greener, spelling the end of certain short-haul routes.

Meanwhile, the emerging work-from-anywhere trend could further accelerate flight-free travel, with some organizations influencing these decisions.

ClimatePerks, for example, works with businesses to offer paid “journey days” to “empower staff to live their values and choose low-carbon holiday travel.” Byway’s Jones questioned why this should apply to just the employees’ personal travel; why not apply it to corporate travel too?

“We’re talking with a few companies about how we can partner to facilitate flight-free travel, so when their teams do come back, they can travel more sustainably,” she said, adding Byway could help employees combine business and leisure travel in the future once borders reopen.

Jumping In

Other startup activity in the rail space is another signal pointing to future demand.

Germany’s FlixMobility is resuming and launching intercity bus and rail services in France, Italy and Sweden. As it restarts in 36 countries, it’s hiring for dozens of technical, marketing, and sales positions. Byway is on a similar recruitment drive too.

Meanwhile, France’s multi-modal platform Kombo has extended its rail coverage to Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

Even car-pooling company BlaBlaCar, which recently raised $115 million in fresh investment, will soon start selling train tickets, according to French newspaper Le Figaro. New train company European Sleeper also has its eyes on the less time-conscious business traveler.

“It’s increasingly center stage for our clients, they understand rail offers an effective way to help reach their carbon reduction targets,” said Jason Geall, vice president and general manager Europe, American Express Global Business Travel. “But sustainability is not the whole story. Corporates are also aware of the train’s total trip benefits. On a time-elapsed basis, the plane might beat the train. But when you consider the total trip, rail offers a journey with fewer interruptions and a more productive traveler experience.”

He cited one client in North America that is now amending its travel policy to encourage travelers to take the train for trips under 300 miles and/or two hours. The enhanced policy applies to the “US Northeast Corridor” but will later include Europe and Asia.

Another customer is seeking advice on how it can use its online booking tool to actively substitute rail for air. “We started in Germany with data analysis to understand the company’s travel patterns and where they can use the train rather than the plane. We will start working in other countries in the months ahead,” Geall said.

He added that Amex GBT was also committed to rail before the pandemic, and in Europe it was facilitating six million rail transactions each year.

Rival agency CWT said it too was seeing more clients implement or analyze travel policies incorporating rules around when to choose rail. “This no doubt will continue to rise as governments consider mandating short-haul journeys to be made by road or rail, rather than by air,” the company said.

Over the course of the pandemic, Capita Travel and Events’ Collier said it has come across two tenders that specified strong international rail coverage as a necessity. “We haven’t seen this before,” he said.

Trainline for Business, meanwhile, has signed up 16 customers to its global API distribution platform since February last year, including TripActions. The platform brings together hundreds of train operating companies into a single connection.

“This demonstrates a clear demand from travel sellers to enable more train journeys among their customers,” said its president Champa Magesh who joined from Amadeus in January this year.

“While Covid restrictions still remain in place across Europe, we expect to see more businesses choose train as more people are able to return to travel, driven by the growing ambition to reduce carbon emissions. We are supporting this modal shift towards rail through providing easy access to millions of fares, routes and journey times.”

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Tags: air france-klm group, blablacar, carbon emissions, climate change, coronavirus, europe, eurostar, founders factory, rail, sustainability, tap airlines, Trainline, trains, tripactions

Photo credit: The Jacobite steam train runs between Fort William and Mallaig in the Scottish highlands, and has appeared in several Harry Potter films. Jack Anstey / Unsplash

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