LONDON — A new rail booking platform has launched in Canada, one that is more than ready to work with travel agents.
Rail Online, founded in 2019 by Australian tourism & transport expert James Dunne, launched in Canada and the United States last month, offering carrier fare price matching, instant refunds on e-tickets and, most notably, no foreign currency transaction fees, allowing customers to book in local Canadian and U.S. dollars.
But the best news of all? The company offers commission on sales, including the possibility of higher commissions during promotional periods, as well as extra travel agent perks like training, reward points and cash vouchers.
“We are already talking to a number of agents in Canada following launch earlier this month. They are the backbone of our business,” Dunne tells Travelweek. “Rail is often only one component of much larger itineraries including air, hotel, cruise, transfers and tours, so agents are instrumental in identifying and creating opportunities for rail travel to enhance the travel experience.”
Dunne says the recent launch is just the beginning of a bigger, longer-term plan that the company will be working towards over the next two to three years. In the short term, Rail Online will be introducing new rail network connections and features as it continues its global rollout. Customers can currently book tickets with VIA Rail (Canada), Amtrak (U.S.), National Rail (UK) and SCNF (France, including Eurostar), with further networks to follow including Trenitalia (Italy), which will be introduced to the platform in the coming weeks. Eurail passes, for travel itineraries across Europe, are also currently available to book via the Rail Online website.
In this exclusive interview, we asked Dunne about Rail Online’s growth strategy for Canada specifically, why rail travel has become so popular post-Covid, and which rail journeys he would recommend for summer 2023.
Can you tell us about your background in travel, and why you created Rail Online?
“I have worked in the international tourism & transport industry for 26 years and after 14 years in the aviation industry, including roles at Concorde International, Austrian Airlines and Singapore Airlines, I moved into the rail space, joining Rail Plus in 2014 as CEO Australia and New Zealand. My Rail Online journey began when I left Rail Plus in 2017 after it was acquired by Rail Europe.
“When I joined Rail Plus, I quickly realized that the rail industry lacked the standardisation of aviation processes. The company was still manually printing and posting many tickets, which took about five days to process. So, I focused my attention on innovation and automation as well as streamlining processes to ensure efficiencies, maximise productivity and profitability and enhance customer service. My Rail Plus experience opened my eyes to the opportunity to build my own Rail ticketing platform from scratch, but with efficient processes in place right from the start.”
How is the Canadian market different from other markets you’re currently in (Australia, New Zealand and United States)? And what specifically about Canadian travellers are you most excited about?
“The Canadian market has a historically strong French VFR travel component. We are glad to be able to offer the SNCF Group product to Canadians and are optimistic about seeing an increase in passenger traffic between Canada and Europe, even surpassing pre-pandemic levels.
“Rail Online also allows Canadian travellers to purchase their European and North American rail trips in CAD, so no foreign currency fees apply. On the other hand, we are also keen to offer the opportunity for customers across the globe to travel to Canada and experience the wonders here through our offering of VIA Rail sectors.”
What’s your immediate growth strategy for Canada? And are you planning on partnering with Canadian tour operators and/or travel agencies?
“Our plan for 2023 is to fine tune our B2B offering for Canadian travel agents, particularly in offering all key payment options and ensuring our back-end processes are efficient. The next step will then be to formalise our commercial relationships to drive growth in 2024 and beyond.”
With travel returning to normal, 2023 – for many companies – will be the first full normal year of operations. What kind of year are you expecting in terms of bookings, particularly from Canada?
“We are very new to market and of course need to make our mark, but are expecting a strong second half to 2023, particularly to European destinations such as France and Italy. We are excited to be launching our connection with Trenitalia this July for Canadian travellers. We have already seen 2023 Eurail ticket sales in Canada triple this year compared to 2022, with the Canadian sales in the top three of countries purchasing them.”
The company launched right when the pandemic hit. How did you pivot in terms of growth strategy?
“Rail Online was incorporated in 2019 and soft-launched in Australia in 2021, after the pandemic forced us to delay by a year. With international travel so limited during the pandemic, there was undoubtedly a huge shift towards domestic travel. This, alongside new commuter patterns, created a huge opportunity for the rail sector, which continues to thrive as habits have changed for the long term. It has also accelerated the digitalization process with regards to ticketing.
“Our initial web-based ticketing platform has grown organically over the past two years, with bookings coming out of Canada, the U.S., India and Europe despite no official marketing or launch activity in those markets until now.”
What are your short- and long-term goals for Rail Online?
“With a number of new and innovative features to roll out this year and next (watch this space!), we’re on a mission to become the most valued and frequently used rail booking platform.
“The short-term goal is to provide a more intuitive customer journey and help customers travel better, whether as part of their daily commute, a family day out or as part of a cross-country adventure. The longer-term plans involve a much wider, more integrated global travel offering, but we can’t talk about that just yet!
“Our ultimate goal is to enable customers to travel more intelligently, efficiently and free of hassle. So in addition to rolling out more European networks following launch, we will be talking to operators to explore the possibility of introducing a number of innovative app features to support the customer experience right through to the end of their journey.
“Platform notifications, delay warnings, train tracking, and even station navigation tools have the potential to streamline the passenger experience and significantly reduce time spent in front of departure boards, taking the wrong exits or waiting for delayed trains, for example. In today’s fast paced world, people need to move more effectively around major cities, so if we can save someone five to 10 minutes a day each day, that’s got a lot of utility and value.”
We saw many travel trends emerge as a result of the pandemic. How do you think rail travel meets some of these trends?
“An evident rise in a desire for ‘slow’ travel emerged following the pandemic, as a result of an enhanced awareness of and need to protect our physical and mental wellbeing, of a need to be more mindful and present, and also from an ever-increasing consciousness of how our behaviours affect the environment. Thankfully, this trend has continued post-pandemic, with France recently bringing in legislation that will prohibit air travel between two cities where a high-speed rail service exists for a journey of less than two and a half hours. This will support the EU’s goal of doubling the usage of high-speed rail by 2030, and I believe we can expect other countries to follow the lead of this important French initiative.”
Can you give us an overview of Rail Online’s main product offering? How do you differ from other rail booking sites, like Railbookers?
“We offer agents the opportunity to book rail travel in multiple different countries via one single platform. Currently, our offering covers Canada for domestic travel, the UK, France (including Eurostar), and the USA, with Italy launching imminently and Germany, Switzerland and Spain also to follow. Eurail passes are also available for travel itineraries across Europe.
“We are a consumer champion, with no booking fees, carrier fare matching and offering instant refunds on e-tickets. We are also committed to eliminating paper waste associated with rail travel, working only with rail operators that have the functionality to offer digital tickets to customers.
“Lastly, we offer round-the-clock customer service thanks to presence in Australia and the UK, with North America to follow.
“We know the team at Railbookers well. It’s a great product that primarily focuses on rail packages. At Rail Online we focus more on a foreign independent travel (FIT) offering, where rail is an unescorted stand-alone product within a larger itinerary.”
What are 3 rail trips that you would recommend to Canadians for summer 2023?
“Paris – Lyon: Paris should be on everyone’s travel bucket list, but 2023 is also a big year for France. Us Aussies are mad for rugby, so I can’t help but include this French itinerary for before or after the Rugby World Cup this September once the busier summer season has come to a close.
“Rome – Florence: Italy is full of history, art and culture, and the Italian landscape is just stunning. This route makes the most of visiting these iconic and ancient cities, whilst also having the time to enjoy some delicious Italian food and wine along the way.
“London – Edinburgh: A UK itinerary will never disappoint and is a good option for those who prefer more manageable summer temperatures. London is only a 4.5-hour train journey from the Scottish capital, Edinburgh. Both cities are at their best in the summer months, with endless opportunities for sightseeing, museums, art & cultural events and attractions, impressive dining options, buzzing nightlife, parks, and great shopping!”
Lastly, what’s your main message to Canadian travel agents?
“We look forward to working with you in 2023 and beyond for your client’s rail travel needs!”
For more information about Rail Online go to https://www.rail.online/.