How is rail travel faring in the pandemic? We check in with Railbookers’ Cris David
Rocky Mountaineer's Gold Leaf Service is among the many products sold by Railbookers (Credit Rocky Mountaineer)

How is rail travel faring in the pandemic? We check in with Railbookers’ Cris David

TORONTO — We all know the uphill battle that airlines and cruise lines have when it comes to boosting customer confidence – but what about rail companies?

In a global pandemic that has shone the spotlight on health and safety practices onboard planes and cruise ships, rail companies have, for the most part, been flying under the radar. There’s no question that they’ve felt the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis just as much as airlines and cruise companies, but in terms of feeling the global scrutiny that much of the travel industry has been subject to these past nine months, rail companies have largely been spared.

So this begs the question: is rail travel in a better position to rebound quicker than other modes of transportation?

According to a recent global survey by GlobalData, rail travel is likely to boom post-COVID-19, with tourists likely to favour destinations closer to home due to fears of flying. The survey also found that 48% of respondents are prioritizing reducing their environmental footprint now more than ever, which should benefit rail travel, a more environmentally-friendly form of transport compared to air travel.

But some travel agents say not enough is being done to promote rail right now, despite its potential to really take off in 2021.

Betty Perard, Bilingual Group Air Specialist at Creative Group Inc., in Toronto, tells Travelweek that though popular corridors like Quebec-Montreal-Toronto may see increased ridership post-COVID, more publicity is needed to entice Canadians, especially those who’ve never travelled this way before.

“I think rail travel within Canada could increase if there’s more awareness. There’s not enough push for rail and the general population does not tend to think about it for travel within Canada,” she says. “But I think those who’ve booked rail love the ease and comfort of it. In my opinion, the only downside to rail travel is the travel time compared to flights. Other than that, rail can be a safe and popular way to travel.”

Cheryl Coleman, an independent agent with The Travel Agent Next Door, says that rail travel has always been an easy sell for her but the pandemic, understandably, has put a halt on bookings.

“There is a lack of confidence by Canadian tourists to book travel now, even with the upcoming Christmas season,” says Coleman. “I do believe that European train travel is on hold and that most Canadian travel agents are only booking essential train travel at this time. I can only predict that if there is a vaccine soon that our passengers will want to resume holidays in Europe as soon as possible.”

To give us a better idea of how rail travel is faring – and recovering – in the midst of the pandemic, we recently checked in with Cris David, Vice President of Sales, Canada at Yankee Leisure Group, parent company of Railbookers, which offers a wide portfolio of rail vacations across Canada, the United States, Europe and more. Here’s what he had to say:

BRING ON 2021

Following the doom and gloom of 2020, 2021 looks much more hopeful, says David, with forward bookings ahead of where they were a year ago, when 2020 was on track to be Railbookers’ best year ever. This confirms GlobalData’s report findings, he adds.

“Thanks to our extensive portfolio of domestic offerings in three major markets (the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada), we have been able to take new bookings every day since the COVID-19 pandemic began,” says David. “We’re definitely seeing a heightened interest in demand for rail vacations as a post-COVID travel choice.”

He cites several factors that are driving increased popularity, including Space & Privacy (“Private compartments are available on overnight trains”), Independent Travel (“Rail vacation is an independent travel format, enabling guests to enjoy a customized, private experience”) and Remote Tourism (“COVID-19 has given rise to this new trend, with wide open spaces taking centre stage as the most popular destinations for travellers longing to escape the confinement imposed by the pandemic”).

DOMESTIC FORECAST

After 22 years in the industry, David says he’s never seen a greater appetite for domestic travel experiences in Canada than now. With Canada’s non-essential travel advisory and mandatory quarantine still in place, Canadians are looking to home-grown vacations to get their travel fix.

“With no short-term possibility of traveling trans-border or overseas, we have seen intense interest from the trade in our rail journeys across Canada and through the Canadian Rockies,” he says. “Barriers to international travel such as government advisories and mandatory quarantine requirements have prompted Canadians to rediscover what a spectacular destination we have within our own borders.”

Although inter-provincial travel has been off-limits this year and VIA Rail’s cross-country service on The Canadian (Toronto-Vancouver train) has been suspended for much of 2020, David reports many bookings for 2021 on trans-Canadian itineraries. Also proving to be very popular for 2021 is Rocky Mountaineer, which next year will add a new route in the Southwest United States travelling between Denver, Colorado and Moab, Utah.

EUROPE DEMAND

Railbookers has continued to see booking activity in Europe, thanks in large part to British guests, throughout the pandemic. Its rail partners in the region have maintained operations throughout the crisis, with trains currently running in most European countries.

And though travel restrictions has largely impeded travel to Europe in 2020 (EU removed Canada from its green-light list in October), David foresees many Canadians returning to their favourite European destinations as soon as restrictions are lifted.

“Most travellers have the desire to make sure that their first trip post-COVID makes up for the forced travel hiatus we have all endured,” says David. “The trend we have seen is that travellers are willing to spend more on longer trips that are more comfortable and luxurious.”

David notes that many Canadian travellers are still holding onto unredeemed future cruise credits for European river and ocean cruises, and when they’re ready to rebook their voyage for 2021 or 2022, many will want to put their unused 2020 travel budget towards a pre- or post-cruise land extension package.

“Pre- and post-cruise and river cruise is a specialty for us at Railbookers as we have flexible, customizable rail vacation packages connecting with all major ocean and river ports throughout Europe,” says David. “We have just launched more than 40 new pre- or post-cruise itineraries based on agent feedback regarding their most frequently requested extension packages.”

HEALTH & SAFETY

Much has been said about the cutting-edge HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters on airplanes, which have been proven to eliminate airborne viruses and bacteria. Although rail companies have not, for the most part, installed these filters onboard trains, they do have one thing over airlines: reduced capacity.

“Most operators have adopted 50% seating capacity in Economy seating carriages, with every other seat blocked off. Furthermore, there are no middle seats on trains – Economy carriages are configured in a 2×2 seating format,” says David.

In addition to this, rail operators have implemented a wide-ranging scope of safety protocols since the start of the pandemic, from contactless ticketing to enhanced sanitation. VIA Rail, for example, requires all passengers to wear a mask or face covering and has implemented health checks for employees and strict cleaning protocols in stations and on trains, including disinfection of hard surfaces and high-contact areas. Rocky Mountaineer is committed to taking the temperature of passengers prior to boarding each day as well as enforcing physical distancing and mask wearing. Plus, train interiors will be thoroughly sanitized at the end of each day with an electrostatic disinfectant spray and passengers will travel with the same group of guests for all transfers to and from the train.

“While trains have not installed HEP filters, the guaranteed capacity limits, lack of crowds and privacy make rail travel a particularly safe and civilized way to travel,” says David. “It’s a go-to alternative for many travellers considering their options for their first trip once blanket-restrictions on leisure travel have been lifted.”

Cindy Sosroutomo