Rail reservations system provider SilverRail Technologies for the first time is being deployed outside the United States. Self-booking tool GetThere during the past few weeks has been enabling the sale of Deutsche Bahn tickets worldwide via SilverRail's application programming interface. GetThere also will sell seats on Renfe once the Spanish national rail operator is integrated into the SilverRail API, expected in the next couple of months. Italian private rail operator NTV is projected to follow next year. Another booking tool provider, KDS, also intends to use SilverRail as its platform for selling Renfe and NTV tickets.
Founded in 2009, SilverRail provides essentially a global distribution system for rail. The company loads schedules, fares and availability from rail operators into its system and creates a single process for booking seats across all participating suppliers. "When a booker makes a query, the coding for the enquiry is the same for each rail carrier," SilverRail vice president for commercial relations Cameron Jones told The Beat. "It's a consistent booking experience. Bookers don't need to learn a new workflow." SilverRail offers a connection via its API to what it terms "travel sellers," including not only booking tool providers but also online travel agencies and other retailers.
Currently, SilverRail through its API offers booking capabilities with six rail operators. Since 2010 it has hosted Amtrak in the United States and the Association of Train Operating Companies in the United Kingdom. In 2011, it brought on board national rail operators in Belgium, the Netherlands and Canada. This year it added Deutsche Bahn. However, until now, the API only has been used by various U.S.-based players, including Egencia, Orbitz for Business and Rearden Commerce (which powers the American Express Axiom and Carlson Wagonlit Travel's mobile tools). Each has used SilverRail only to sell Amtrak and only at U.S. points of sale.
GetThere is the first travel seller to leverage SilverRail in multiple markets, starting with Deutsche Bahn. GetThere previously provided corporate customers access to Deutsche Bahn by offering a punch-out to the German rail operator's own booking system. Now, "bookers don't leave the [GetThere] tool, and it looks roughly like when you book air, hotel or car rental with us," said GetThere chief product and strategy officer Paul Wiley.
GetThere in May 2011 signed a commercial agreement with SilverRail but the Deutsche Bahn integration only recently has been completed. GetThere already has direct connections of its own to most of the other rail operators offered via SilverRail, and Wiley said these likely would stay in place rather than switching to the SilverRail API. "Operators that we don't have, such as in the Nordics, Spain and Italy, are a much higher priority for us," he said. "We see this as a growth opportunity."
KDS, which has more rail direct connects than GetThere, including to Deutsche Bahn, has adopted an identical approach to its competitor. "We don't anticipate switching from our direct connects," said marketing director Stan Berteloot.
SilverRail's Jones said he understands their position, but hopes to convince travel sellers of what he sees as the advantage of using SilverRail to distribute all rail operators. "It will make sense for self-booking tools not to have multiple connections," he said. "It is hard to maintain connections with each carrier. SilverRail insulates the travel seller from all that noise."
Meanwhile, SilverRail is pressing ahead with other innovations. It expects to launch this month a web-based agent tool. SilverAgent would enable a travel management company to access and amend reservations made by corporate clients through self-booking tools. Agents also would be able to make rail bookings themselves directly through SilverAgent.
The company's overarching strategy is to standardize distribution of international rail__a Herculean challenge given the almost total lack of integration between rail operators in different countries. Jones pointed to one example of SilverRail's progress: a global railway station code database. Eurostar's London terminal, St. Pancras, for instance, has been allocated different codes by ATOC, Eurostar, Deutsche Bahn (which commences services there in 2015) and the International Air Transport Association. "We have created a unique code for each station with all the operators' codes mapped to it," said Jones.
The Holy Grail of European rail would be to sell currently non-existent international through-tickets. A first step toward this goal would be to create an international journey planner, and Jones said SilverRail hopes to deliver a prototype within the next few months that would allow travel sellers to develop a workaround by selling separate tickets for each leg of the journey.
GetThere's Wiley praised SilverRail's efforts. "Where we see a huge opportunity is to join different rail operators together, so you could, for instance, buy a ticket from Glasgow to Malaga," he said. "SilverRail is solving the technology side but there is still a lot of work to do on the commercial side."
The long-standing problem which the European Commission also is trying to solve is that Europe's largely state-owned rail operators have shown little interest in standardizing timetables, tariffs, reservations and fulfilment. Jones said SilverRail hopes its technological solutions will encourage operators to work harder towards unified pricing.
A senior executive at a multinational TMC speaking to The Beat on the condition of anonymity said he, too, hopes SilverRail can prove a catalyst for change in Europe. "Efficient booking of international rail is an area where managed travel is falling short," he said. "SilverRail is a great content aggregator. You can plug in a platform that has already done the aggregation. However, this is only part of the story. Issues like electronic ticketing also need to be solved. There is still a long way to go."