Clare Gilmartin, CEO
Rail and coach booking service Trainline is ambitious and is now growing outside of its UK roots into Europe and beyond.
The former eBay exec knows a lot about retail, expansion and customers - and can now add distribution, standardization and mobile technology to her repertoire of skills needed to run an online business.
Can you give us your SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses,
Opportunities, Threats) analysis of the business?
We’re now a high-growth, global business. Our sales are over
£2.4 billion, we are present across 36 countries and we have about 50 million
visitors (on a sharp increase), and about 80% of the business is mobile.
It’s a super exciting business, not least because it is
still predominantly offline. Rail and coach are about £200 billion globally, so
a big business, yet still 70% of purchasing happens offline.
Our mission is to make buying online a lot easier and to
accelerate the move online and to mobile.
It’s incredibly hard to get stakeholders together on standardisation. It’s a role that we can play by pulling all those disparate things together, and doing the work under the cover.
There’s a great role that technology can play, making it
much simpler for consumers to find prices across carriers and a much simpler one-click
We want to continue to expand (we recently launched a partnership
in Japan, our first outside Europe), add more carriers and partners.
It’s very exciting - we’ve launched price prediction, a voice
app through Google Assistant, and we’re helping rail or coach carriers launch
e-ticketing. And we’re always enhancing things - we make about 200 changes a
week to our site and mobile apps.
I’m an optimist so I won’t dwell on weaknesses. On threats –
the travel tech sector is hugely exciting, but I never get complacent about
competition and that other players in the space might move faster than us.
What’s your general view on distribution and how easy (or
not) it is with regards to rail content and suppliers?
Travel should be broadly distributed and as extremely accessible
as possible to consumers, so by aggregating all these different carriers across
Europe that is what we’re trying to do.
Things have moved a lot in the last five years. We say to carriers
that we can only be successful if we’re selling more tickets on their behalf –
if we’re growing the rail vertical.
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But the mindset in rail is changing. Distributing all content,
great app experiences – these are things that grow the pie.
I wouldn’t agree that is necessarily easier to work with
state rather than private operators.
Attitudes have changed – stakeholders across the entire industry
recognize that a digital innovator can add a lot, the pace of innovation gets
faster and the number of platforms that are available is enormous, so it helps
if there’s someone focused purely on that customer experience for them.
Do you sense that there is a fair amount of educating needed
with consumers and the industry that rail is a viable alternative to flying?
It’s part of our mission, for sure. The high-speed landscape
has seen a big change in the last 10 years, and will see an even bigger change
as the high-speed network in Europe is forecast to quadruple over the next 10 years.
I hold customer panels and I encourage our engineering, product and PR teams to bring customers in and talk to them. It’s not just about the data on customers but also the emotional connection.
It brings previously high-volume air routes in direct
competition with rail for the first time. In order for us to make best use of
that expanded rail network, we need great apps, predictive tools, seat
availability tools and other services – all of those things can help customers
make best use of the network.
We’re absolutely on a journey. For example, in the UK
alone we’ve seen a 2X on the number of passengers on rail in the last 10 to 15
The market is growing, and it’s being fueled by digital
migration of consumers and services, such as mobile ticketing, and on top of
that you have the high-speed rail investments.
And, if you step back, rail is much more environmentally
friendly way of travelling, versus cars or short-haul air.
Also, the airport experience has become a lot tougher, and
necessarily so, but the rail journey is now seen as being a productive time for
business travelers and the start of the trip for leisure.
Who would say are Trainline’s main competitors now?
There are many players globally that are starting to think
And given that 70% of tickets are still bought offline, we
can probably say that the ticket machine in the ticket hall is one!
This is one of the rare offline-to-online opportunities left
in travel, so I would expect there to be plenty of competition in the next few
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It’s not an easy vertical to get into – the technology of
the underlying carriers is vastly disparate and there’s no standardization for
station names, for example.
So it’s definitely a technology challenge, thus we had to
create our own bespoke routing engine, fares engine, as they did not exist off
the shelf as other tools are elsewhere.
If standardization should be some kind of goal, who do you
think should be driving that?
That’s a big question!
We’ve spent many years creating our standardization layer, and we continue to optimize and innovate on it.
You still have local governments or private companies that
are driving the rail or coach network, so it’s incredibly hard to get those
It’s a role that we can play by pulling all those disparate
things together, and doing the work under the cover.
Do you have any ambitions to add more services to the
product beyond rail and coach?
There’s still room for geographic expansion for us, and there’s
still plenty of customer experience innovation for us to consider at the same
Would we consider other travel industry verticals? Where it
augments the customer experience with rail and coach, then yes we would.
You’ve recently signed a deal in Japan, and Europe is the
traditional heartland, but you have two massive networks in India and China. Are they countries you’re also interested in?
Yes, potentially. The last few years have been about
completing our European supply. We have a constantly evolving plan; it’s based
on where we think we can add the most value for customers.
The Captain Train deal was a big moment for Trainline as it
heralded your European expansion at the time.
We bought that business in 2016, and it significantly added
to our supply base. It was our view that it was not only a UK customer need, but a European and global customer need for simplifying the customer experience
in rail and coach, so that’s why we bought the company.
We thought that there’s a consumer demand for this well
beyond the UK and there’s a huge growth generally (in fact, we sell to
passengers in 170 countries).
You talk a lot about mobile and being a mobile-first company,
but what have you experienced along the way with the technology?
I was at eBay before here, and I actually thought the
migration from web to mobile was a bit slower than I’ve since seen it happen at
Travel is an on-the-go experience, and that’s why we’ve seen
such extraordinary growth in the last three to four years.
It’s not just about one-click buying and all that, but it’s
about delay or platform information, so it’s been a tremendously mobile-friendly vertical.
What did you learn during that time at eBay that has been
important to the way you’ve steered Trainline?
The importance of meeting and listening to customers is so
often forgotten in companies as they scale.
I hold customer panels and I encourage our engineering,
product and PR teams to bring customers in and talk to them.
I emphatically believe that is an important thing to do. It’s
not just about the data on customers but also the emotional connection.
Do you think it’s the traveler requirements or the industry pushing
the boundaries that drives the changes that we see taking place?
Customers, to a certain extent, just by their constant need
and desire for things to be simpler, more transparent and more efficient.
To wrap us up: What assumption about travelers did you have
that turned out not to be true?
In the case of rail, I had assumed that everybody knew that
it was better to buy online, you got a cheaper price, would be able to make
more informed decisions.
When I joined Trainline in 2014, I just assumed everyone
knew that. It is not necessarily true at all.
There’s a big job still to educate customers across Europe.
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