Innovating towards a future where booking rail is as quick and easy as booking an air ticket

Thorsten Zimmermann

Former Head of Rail Product and Programme Management, Amadeus

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Having worked in the travel industry for over 12 years, I have often been asked the question, “why isn’t it as easy to book an international rail journey as it is to book an international flight?” The challenges and complexity faced by passengers when trying to book cross-border rail journeys can be very frustrating, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the words ‘innovation’ and ‘international rail travel’ don’t sit very comfortably together. So let me tell you a bit about how innovation is helping to shape the future of international rail travel in Europe.


The complexities mentioned above are largely due to the fragmented nature of the rail industry which has evolved with lots of separate companies that are first and foremost national rail carriers, focussed on their own domestic routes. It has not benefited from the same standards and agreements that exist between carriers in the air industry, which has always been global.

But as EU policy and liberalisation open up Europe’s expansive rail network to increased competition, one of the key areas that the rail industry needs to address is how to make rail more accessible to the travel seller and prospective passenger. Rail needs to become more of a central component within the broader travel ecosystem. It’s got to be as quick and easy to find and as simple to book as air. And this is where innovation comes into play.

At Amadeus, we’re continually working on innovative ways to make rail more readily available and visible to travellers. Through the development of our Total Rail offering, and the aggregation of multi-provider rail content, we’re making sure that the right technology is available for each channel to make rail as accessible as possible. The availability of up-to-date, accurate data and quick response times are crucial. We place a lot of emphasis on driving up the number of searches per volume of bookings, also known as the “look-to-book” ratio.

Speed of response is key to maintaining a healthy ratio. Our Instant Search functionality for rail enables the best available fare per itinerary over a specific time period, such as one day, to be retrieved in a matter of just a few milliseconds. Our cache technology enables such a fast response time as the online travel agent accesses aggregated rail content directly from Amadeus, without the need to poll the rail providers’ systems themselves, making it very quick and easy to find the best-priced fare. This is very advanced when you consider what exists in the rail industry today.

Our role is to bundle and simplify content from multiple rail providers in a homogenous way. Rail companies can ensure their content is as accessible as possible, while retaining control of who has access to it. It’s a fully flexible system that allows them to tailor different offers to different audiences, for example from one country to the next. It’s then up to us, at Amadeus, to ensure that the data is frequently refreshed in order to keep the quality of information high and up to date.

Another area we’re focussing on to make rail search even more intuitive is Extreme Search. Consumer behaviour has changed enormously with the advent of ever-connected devices, volumes of travel searches are growing and travellers expect to be presented with as many comparable journey options as possible before making their booking. Even in scenarios where they may not have a fixed idea of exactly where they want to go, they want to see all the options that are available to them.


So take the example of a traveller who just wants to find out where they can go on their 300 Euro budget or what’s available if they want to take a city break in two weeks’ time, we’re working to ensure that in this kind of scenario rail journey options are displayed to the traveller as a viable alternative to other transport modes. It’s here that rail companies can really feel the benefit of being part of the wider Amadeus community as we’re able to tap into technology and products originally created for the airline industry and apply them to rail where it makes sense to do so.

While these kind of capabilities may be nothing new for the airline industry, for the rail industry they represent a pioneering step towards ensuring that rail content is retrieved as quickly and easily as air content. It’s a very exciting step for rail; we’re giving travel agencies a level of functionality and response times that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. And while we might be dealing with relatively small volumes today, this is set to ramp up with technology that can continue to deliver instantaneous results for very large volumes of searches.

Ultimately as we work to fully integrate rail within the travel ecosystem, the question I mention at the top of this post will one day become obsolete, as it’ll be just as quick and seamless to book an international rail journey as it is to book air travel.