A new study into the rail booking sector in Europe argues that the industry will find the challenge of integration "immense".
The report from Phocuswright and SilverRail Technologies says traditional online travel agencies will be "challenged to pivot on rail", but such a move could undermine their ability to compete in the market.
A key finding in the report says:
"The challenge of incorporating rail products into third-party distribution is immense; the effort extends beyond providing access to accurate schedule and pricing data."
Furthermore, a wide range of other functions in the industry need to be retuned to help capture the opportunity that could follow from growth in European rail travel.
These are not easy disciplines to overhaul, however, with the report citing "mobile apps, marketing, social media, public relations" that must alter to incorporate rail functionality.
One of the other main areas that needs a concerted effort is around the sharing of data by rail operators.
Deregulation of national networks and competition between rail companies, coach services and airlines is finally pushing operators to "open their doors to more third party distribution".
Still, as any technology company or consumer-facing brand knows, persuading every rail operator to share its fares, inventory and booking path is a huge challenge.
The report concedes that such a trend is "critical to integrating rail into the broader online travel ecosystem".
Phocuswright estimates the the European rail market is approximately half the size of the low cost carrier sector, with total gross bookings on rail reaching 31 billion in 2014 in the largest countries.
Mirroring where leisure bookings for air and hotels rest in the middle of the current decade in the online-offline ratio, rail is expected to hit almost 50% via the web by 2020.
There is a long way to go for third parties to capture some of that share of the rail market, with only 5% of bookings currently made on online travel agencies (supplier-direct gets 31%) in 2015.
The report argues that direct price comparison of rail fares against flights (especially on routes where they can genuinely compete on price and duration, hub-to-hub) is the "Holy Grail" for rail operators.
"Putting rail alternatives side-by-side with online airfares would significantly boost ridership. With limited information on rail options, many travelers tend to stick with flying."
Efforts from the likes of Amadeus and SilverRail on the tech side to push a unified API, alongside consumer-facing brands in the multi-modal metasearch space from GoEuro, Loco2 and Rome2Rio, will play a "critical role" here.
The report concludes:
"But access to content is just the tip of the iceberg. Companies must invest in additional staff on the technical side, but also work to augment marketing, management, and implementation of a new service offering.
"Established companies are also less nimble when it comes to implementation, further compounding the challenge of adding new products. For intermediaries, therefore, this becomes a question of cost-benefit."
NB:Rail image via Shutterstock.
NB2:Full report available here.