SNCF, the French Railway, is plotting moves that affect the online distribution of train tickets for inter-city routes in Europe.
This year, the Rail Europe brand in the UK and in Europe will be phased out, according to a report by Britain's Guardian newspaper quoting the president of SNCF and the managing director of SNCF's main ticket booking site.
Under the plan, visitors to sites like raileurope.co.uk would be re-directed to the parent company's relaunched pan-European website Voyages-SNCF.
Since publication of that report however, the story has gone quiet.
Looking for an update, Tnooz contacted SNCF headquarters, RailEurope, RailTeam (the consortium of high-speed rail operators in Europe), Voyages-SNCF, the booking portal, and SNCF Consulting, which handles its annual reports.
All declined to comment, despite multiple calls and emails.
The original report also claimed that SNCF will soon launch a multi-modal transport tool, allowing customers to book cars and purchase travel options, including rail tickets and flights from more than 180 European airlines. [UPDATE: It's launched! See comments, below.]
It's not clear if this would be a relaunch of Voyages-SNCF, the operator's domestic booking platform, as a global brand, or the creation of a new brand.
For some on-the-record analysis, we spoke Mark Smith, creator of the rail traveler's bible The Man in Seat 61, for his thoughts:
I saw the article last year, and wondered if SNCF had finally seen sense, but then realised they only meant Europe-wide, not worldwide.
I have neither seen nor heard any more on this since, and nor have my acquaintances in the industry through their own contacts. I gather it's still on the cards, but must be moving very slowly.
Au revoir, Rail Europe?
The decision to throw away the brand equity built up in the UK since the late 1990s has surprised some analysts.
Rail Europe has been the UK representative of SNCF, and travelers booking tickets elsewhere in Europe have been trained for years to use RailEurope.eu branded sites, such as deutschland.raileurope.eu.
Under the plan, the Rail Europe brand would still survive abroad. Travelers in the US, Canada and elsewhere outside of Europe would still use Rail Europe-branded websites like raileurope.com.
Voyages-sncf.com is the most visited French travel website, according to Médiamétrie/NetRatings for 2nd quarter 2012—the most recent data available. But its traffic of 7,183,000 unique visitors a month has been stagnant, with no real growth since 2010.
The French Railways website currently sells tickets for any journey within France, and for the direct international trains from Paris to Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany.
The French railway firm SNCF appears to want to dominate all online sales of cross-border rail tickets across Europe under the Voyages-SNCF brand. Long distance in train in Europe transports about 1.1 billion passengers a year.
For analysis, see this viewpoint by rail expert Mark Smith: "European rail desperately needs smarter online booking platforms"