There is no train station in Quainton, a tiny village in Buckinghamshire that lives up to its name. Instead, I take the Chiltern Railways service from London Marylebone to Aylesbury Vale Parkway, where Mark Smith picks me up in his silver Range Rover to drive the last few kilometres to his home, past a crumbling church and an historic windmill with freshly-restored white sails.
Smith is keen to get back. He’s been migrating his website to a new server and wants to check it’s worked; complaints are bound to start flooding his inbox if there’s a lapse in service. Ten minutes later we get to his house, greeted by his two-year-old cockapoo Pip and cat Phoenix. When he opens his laptop, all appears well.
Since 2001, Smith has been running a website devoted to train travel, with detailed instructions and advice on rail services across Europe and the world. He explains that he started the site after running out of reading material for his commute home from his job at the Office of the Rail Regulator. He popped into WHSmith and bought a ‘Teach Yourself HTML’ book – “the best £2.95 I’ve ever spent,” he says.
He knew immediately what website he wanted to make. “I thought I would do something about the gap between how easy, practical, affordable and enjoyable it is to take the train – not just to Paris or Brussels, but to Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Greece, wherever – and, on the other hand, how downright impossible it is.”
The site started out as a single page, with basic information on travelling from London to other major European cities such as Vienna, Madrid and Copenhagen. It would tell visitors which route to take, where to get the best tickets, and what to expect from the journey.
Nineteen years later, Smith’s site remains one of the most consistently accurate sources of truth for rail information, and has grown to cover train travel globally, with extensive resources for services across Europe as well as pages dedicated to journeys in Asia, Africa, Australasia and the Americas. Smith, who quit his job in 2007 to focus on the site full-time, has become a quiet superhero for travellers across the world, better known by his online alter-ego: The Man in Seat 61.
Mark Smith, aka the Man in Seat 61
Planning air travel is easy. Type a starting point and destination into your preferred flight aggregator and you’ll see a list of options reflecting a full range of tickets available to buy. Your ticket will look similar regardless of which airline you travel with or where you are in the world.
Do the same for trains, and you may not have quite the same experience. Each country and train operator has its own system, language and quirks. In some places, a ticket covers a whole journey, inclusive of interchanges; in others, you need a separate ticket for each leg. Some operators require you to reserve a seat on a specific service; others don’t. A child can variably be classed as under 12, under 14, under 16. Classes of travel can vary, as can seats; without prior experience, you may not know the difference between a ‘couchette’ and a ‘sleeper’ compartment on an overnight train (a couchette is usually more basic and less expensive, with more berths in one compartment).
“Basically, it’s the opposite way around from flying,” Smith says. “When you fly, it’s easy to book – they’ve solved that. [It’s] a nightmare to do, queuing up at the airports – not fun at all. Trains, it’s the other way around. Booking can be a nightmare; doing it is great.”
Sat in a leather armchair in his home office, Smith explains what it takes to keep seat61.com up to date. The site has pages for each country, with suggested routes, timetables, fares and other information. Smith can tell you that the cheapest fares from Budapest to Prague are found through Czech operator České dráhy. He can recommend a weissbier in the bistro of the high-speed train from Vienna to London, or a glass of red on the way to Italy via Munich. If you’re thinking of travelling from Paris to Moscow, he’ll point you in the direction of the only direct train, departing on Thursdays (the full journey includes two overnights).
“It’s all about the content, not about the design,” Smith says. “I know I break the rules in having very big pages with lots of information all in one place.” Paragraphs of text are occasionally broken up with photos that he takes on his travels, but he is keen to keep the site factual and not turn it into a personal blog. He still updates it in HTML, rather than using a content management system. “I haven’t switched to the modern Fisher-Price web,” he says.
Smith’s preferred sources for timetable information are the European Rail Timetable, print editions of which line the shelves of his office, and bahn.de, the website of German rail company Deutsche Bahn. There are two major European train timetable changes per year, the largest of which happens on the second Saturday in December. At this point, Smith will update all of his listings, in a process that takes him about two weeks. Sometimes it might just be a change of a few minutes; sometimes a new train is added or an old one discontinued, which requires a bigger update.
Brussels South, the busiest station in Belgium
Throughout the year, travellers send Smith feedback. He receives 30 to 40 emails a day from people asking advice or pointing out errors on the site. If someone claims to have spotted a change in service, he starts investigating whether he needs to update the relevant page. “I sometimes think of it as being like the railway equivalent of Bletchley Park, where you get various intercepts and have to decode them,” he says. A report of a missing dining car, for example, may mean that service no longer offers refreshments, or it may just be a one-off fluke. “I have sympathies for police cross-examining witnesses, because you get feedback and you think ‘has this person seen a change, or have they seen something that is unusual and out of course?’”
If he gets the same question several times, he knows he needs to add more information – such as whether you can travel from the UK to Europe with a dog (yes, but the Eurostar doesn’t allow pets, so you need to find a ferry that does for the first part of the journey). Visitor feedback is particularly useful for updating information on trips outside of Europe, where up-to-date English-language information can be harder to find; Sri Lanka and Thailand are the most popular non-European pages.
When Smith travels, he takes photos of details such as seats and luggage racks to help visitors know what they’re booking. The eponymous “seat 61” refers to his favourite seat in certain first-class carriages on the original Eurostar trains – on one side of a table for two, next to a window, with no emergency exit bar blocking the view. He also makes YouTube videos of train journeys, some of which have more than a million views.
Smith won’t reveal how much money he makes from the site, which he claims has around 850,000 unique visitors per month, but says it is “enough to be able to do it comfortably and actually focus on giving the right information to people, not on monetizing absolutely everything.” The site includes affiliate links, meaning he earns some commission when people book travel or accommodation through those providers (he doesn’t sell tickets, but will direct visitors to recommended outlets).
He has noticed a 16 percent increase in visitors from 2018 to 2019, which he puts down to concerns over the environmental impact of flying, highlighted particularly by climate activist Greta Thunberg, and general dissatisfaction with the airport and airline experience. Personally, he simply prefers train travel. “It’s civilised,” he says. “My message has always been not that you need to suffer to save the planet; you’re actually doing yourself a favour because it’s a nicer way to go.”
Smith’s wife Nicolette says she wasn’t really into trains when they first met, but that “it comes with the package.” They’d been dating for six months when they took their first train holiday together, on the Venice Simplon-Orient Express – a luxury, vintage-styled night train between London and Venice or Verona with tickets costing more than £2,000 per person. Smith insists the primary reason for the trip was research, but in the sleeper carriage that night they decided on the name of their firstborn, and the next day they were engaged to marry. He and Nicolette disagree on who proposed to whom, but he remembers the important details: “It was in the corridor of S-class sleeping car number 3425, built in 1927.”
The first class carriage of a Brussels-Berlin Deutsche Bahn train
Travelling by train is much better for the environment than flying. Although exact savings vary depending on the kind of train and energy source, rail journeys produce far lower emissions than most other modes of transport. As such, increasing travel by rail, for both passengers and freight, plays an important role in achieving the goals set out in the European Green Deal, a set of initiatives proposed by the European Commission to make Europe “climate neutral” by 2050.
“Transport needs to cut its emissions by 90 per cent if you want to be climate neutral by 2050,” says European Commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean. In March, the Commission proposed to make 2021 “the European Year of Rail”.
Vălean highlights two key issues with the current European rail ecosystem. The first is infrastructure: tracks need modernising, and there are still links missing between countries, especially in Eastern Europe. A new, standardised signalling system known as ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System) is also being implemented across Europe, to increase interoperability across borders.
The second is making the rail system more rider-friendly when it comes to booking. For passengers, international rail travel can still feel very fragmented, even within Europe. If you’re planning a train journey that crosses country borders and has several changes, you may well find yourself attempting to book multiple tickets in multiple languages and currencies. “This is because each country still keeps its own silo, its own system – the train operators are not willing to share data,” Vălean explains.
Several technology companies aim to standardise the booking process for rail, offering a one-stop shop for journey planning and ticket buying. Principal among them are UK-based Trainline, which was the subject of an IPO on the London Stock Exchange in 2019, and Rail Europe, which is part of e.Voyageurs SNCF, a subsidiary of French rail company SNCF. Their respective online platforms and apps offer tickets for routes within Europe, letting customers book onto services operated by different rail companies and in different countries all in one place.
“Train [travel] has been built over national monopolies historically, targeted for the home market with their own specificities,” says Rail Europe CEO Dâu-Khôi Nguyen at SNCF’s glass-and-metal offices in Parisian business district La Défense. “It is going to evolve and modernise, but it will take some time, so our work is to make things simple for the customers.”
Trainline and Rail Europe make deals with train operators to sell their tickets for a commission. They take the data provided by different operators, such as information on timetables and fares, and integrate it into their overarching systems, so that a user will have the same experience whether they’re looking to buy a Eurostar ticket from London to Brussels, a Deutsche Bahn Intercity Express (ICE) ticket from Berlin to Munich, or to stitch together a journey with multiple legs spanning different tickets from different operators.
The challenge is far more complex than just making an e-commerce website for train tickets. “Booking train travel is a complicated problem to solve,” says Trainline CTO Mark Holt. First up is the scale of the problem: while only major cities tend to have international airports, there are tens of thousands more train stations, resulting in exponentially more possible routes. Air travel is also much more standardised; to sell flights, travel sites can use a global distribution system (GDS) such as Amadeus or Sabre to see real-time availability and prices across operators. The same does not exist for rail. “In rail there is no GDS, so we’ve had to build connections to each of the different carriers separately,” Holt says.
Boarding the Eurostar to Paris at St Pancras Station in London
When Trainline makes a deal with a train operator, Holt explains, it gets access to the operator’s API, with data on routes, timetables, fares and so on. As there is no standardisation, each operator’s API can look completely different, so the tech team has to integrate it into their system such that they all feed into a single user experience on the front end – essentially compiling its own version of a GDS for rail. Sometimes this can throw up unusual challenges, such as when the same station is called a different name in different languages, or by different operators (airports, by comparison, have three-letter codes designated by the IATA trade association – “LHR” for London Heathrow, “CDG” for Paris Charles de Gaulle, “LAX” for Los Angeles International and so on – that are recognised internationally). Local knowledge is needed; whereas a Londoner may be well-versed in the city’s different stations, a tourist may try to search for ‘London Central Station’, which doesn’t exist.
The customer can then plan a journey and book tickets without needing to know which operator or operators offer the route they’re looking for. And they can buy through-tickets for a multi-leg journey in one purchase – “which is again a non-trivial problem, because we’re actually sending three different transactions potentially to three different carriers,” Holt says.
As well as connecting to rail operators’ APIs, both Trainline and Rail Europe use real-time data so that they can update customers with information on delays or cancellations. “There is no standardisation of that data across Europe, and in a lot of cases it’s very hard to get access to that information,” Holt says.
Vălean says the hesitation to share data is due to “national protectionism” and a fear of competition – after all, rail operators also sell their own tickets. The Commission is pushing EU member states to open up static rail data, such as timetable information, and then intends to move on to real-time data. “The moment data is made available and shared, then the competition will arise,” she says. “But this is exactly the role of the European Commission.”
Holt expects to see more innovation and competition in the rail sector as the EU’s Fourth Railway Package, a set of legislative texts designed to make the rail network more connected and encourage new operators to enter the space, continues to be implemented. He highlights Italy as a success story: privately-owned Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori (NTV) became Europe’s first open-access rail operator, launching high-speed trains under the brand Italo in 2012 to compete with state-owned incumbent Trenitalia.
Trainline and Rail Europe are both looking to keep adding operators and expanding the routes they sell tickets for, in Europe and possibly beyond. Trainline bought French startup Captain Train in 2016, expanding its reach on the continent, while e.Voyageurs acquired UK startup Loco2 in 2017 and rebranded it as Rail Europe, gaining a greater UK presence. Nguyen says a natural direction for Rail Europe to expand is further east; it does not currently cover Russia. “High speed trains have been developed very well in Japan, Korea and China,” he adds.
Both companies also sell their technology to other businesses, such as travel agents; B2B services make up 60 per cent of Rail Europe’s revenue and around a third of Trainline’s business (many UK train operators’ websites and apps are also provided by Trainline).
Nguyen foresees continued growth in train travel thanks to an interest in sustainability – “I think Greta Thunberg had some communication impact” – and the general popularity of Europe as a holiday destination, with more tourists also flying in from other places and then wishing to travel around the continent. One trend he has observed is Indian tourists travelling to and around Switzerland thanks to the popularity of its mountain scenery in Bollywood films.
Holt says it needs to make commercial sense to expand to new countries, and that the tech challenge can be a barrier. “We need to actually have an API that we can connect to,” he says. “There are quite a lot of countries that you would have expected to have a decent rail API that just don’t.”
My own cross-country journey goes about as badly as possible. Having spent the weekend in Paris, I board a TGV to Karlsruhe in the far west of Germany, only to find that my onward sleeper train to Berlin has been cancelled; Storm Ciara is battering the continent and all services have been halted. I spend the night in a hotel and manage to get on a Deutsche Bahn train headed to Nuremberg around 11am the next morning, but concerns over fallen power cables lead to long delays and the train eventually gives up in Crailsheim, 100km short of its destination. Piling into the disgruntled queue for a replacement bus service, I try to remember Mark Smith telling me how “civilised” train travel is. After eventually managing to get on another Nuremberg-bound train and make one last connection, I get to Berlin just before 11pm – 15 hours after my scheduled arrival.
The next morning I take the U-Bahn to the headquarters of travel startup Omio in the city’s Prenzlauer Berg district. The floors of the building are named after European countries: France, Poland, Italy, Spain, UK, Germany. The office canteen has a view of the TV Tower at nearby Alexanderplatz. The company has 400 employees with 55 different nationalities represented, but colleagues take lunch in typical German fashion: together, at big communal tables.
Omio’s mission goes beyond train ticket booking. Rather, it aims to let users book any kind of transport in one place: search a starting point and destination on its app or website and it will present you with options for trains, coaches, flights, even some ferries and airport transfer services – or a “multi-modal” trip involving several transport modes.
Founder and CEO Naren Shaam started the company in 2013, originally under the name GoEuro, after he went backpacking in Europe while studying in the US and experienced the difficulty of booking travel by bus and train first-hand. “Global transport is not on a single product,” Shaam says, sitting at a conference table on floor Germany, in a meeting room named for the Reichstag. “You can’t book any transport in any standardised format, whether it’s ferries, cars, buses, airport transfers, shuttle services – there is no standardised, easy way to know what your options are, and then transact and be taken care of in the simple way that you expect in the airline industry.”
The company rebranded from GoEuro to Omio in 2019 to reflect its global ambition, shortly after acquiring popular journey-planning platform Rome2rio, based in Melbourne, Australia. Shaam says the company plans to keep the two brands separate, with Rome2rio focused on discovery – the first place you look when considering where to go on holiday and how you might get there – and Omio on booking tickets. Omio takes a commission from tickets it sells, and sometimes charges a service fee. The company has received a total of $296 million of venture funding, with a $150 million series D led by Swedish investment company Kinnevik and Singapore’s Temasek Holdings in 2018.
In January 2020, Omio made its first launch outside of Europe in the US and Canada, partnering with rail operators Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada, airlines Delta and United, and several bus companies. Shaam says that American customers already made up 10 percent of the company’s bookings for European transport, so it made sense to expand in that direction. Omio VP of Engineering Tomas Vocetka says one of the biggest challenges with the US launch was language; the app previously defaulted to UK English, but a “coach” in the UK would be called a “bus” in the US, among other subtleties.
Omio doesn’t aim to cover all journeys and use cases. It doesn’t cater to local commuters, instead focusing on reducing complexity for the majority of users and particularly targeting young, global travellers. “I would say we’re trying to support 90 per cent of use cases of a provider at least for launch, and then we try to work iteratively afterwards to bring the integration to a higher level,” Vocetka says. On some Swedish trains, for example, it is possible to book a pet-friendly seat when travelling with a dog, but such an option would not be applicable to many other journeys or operators.
Vocetka says there are generally two modes of journey planning: one where users take their time, exploring options of where and how to travel, and the more impulsive approach of looking up tickets for immediate purchase or use. A traveller may land at London Heathrow Airport, see that there’s a queue for train tickets, and go to the app to book a digital Heathrow Express ticket on the fly. The rise of mobile has been a defining trend in rail booking, eliminating the need to print a ticket and allowing for more spontaneous decision-making. (The shift is not yet total: when I book a journey back from Berlin to Paris, Omio sends me a PDF explaining how to read the Deutsche Bahn ticket and advising that tickets for international travel still need to be printed.)
While the initial booking process is one challenge, looking after the traveller when they’re on their journey is another. Omio currently has a customer service team that helps users who face delays or have missed connections; the goal eventually is to be able to easily offer alternative arrangements on the go, through its digital products. Cancelled flight? No worries, here’s a train you can take instead. Missed a connection? You’re already booked onto the next service. “As a consumer you kind of say, OK, there’s someone that takes care of me – similar to what Amazon does with goods, basically, somebody takes care of your journey,” Shaam says.
Providing this service at scale, however, presents further obstacles. As well as a lack of standardisation around data, passenger rights for ground transport can vary between countries and operators. “I think that there needs to be a thorough process that a passenger knows that once they book on Omio or on Trainline or on Deutsche Bahn, they can always trust that if something goes wrong, they have the same rights as everywhere else,” says Boris Radke, director of corporate affairs at Omio.
He believes that part of the appeal of air travel is that people know where they stand, introducing a level of trust in the industry. “You know that if something happens, you have your way to get your money back.” To this end, Radke spends time in Brussels working alongside other representatives from the travel and rail sector to push for common European standards around passenger rights and the data made available by transport operators to third parties.
Transport Commissioner Vălean says the European Commission and Parliament are discussing proposals on passenger rights, which currently remain largely nationalised and therefore pose a barrier to easy travelling and ticketing across borders. “You can’t have the terms and conditions until the border of, let’s say, Germany, and then they change,” she says.
A passenger on a Deutsche Bahn train; dogs under 10kg travel free
The ultimate vision for Omio is to make a platform where you can book a multi-modal trip – say, a flight somewhere, then a coach to the city centre, a train journey and perhaps even an Uber to your hotel – all in one go, with all the complexity handled on the back-end, and ongoing support throughout your travels. But here things get even trickier – if your flight is late so that you miss your connection onto a train, who pays for the replacement ticket? What if you have a four-leg trip that breaks up on the first leg, affecting all subsequent connections?
In Omio’s ideal situation, its platform would simply sort out any rebookings and then claim back any refunds from the operators, at a small fee or no extra cost to the passenger. But the system isn’t set up for this yet. “We must know that we can actually claim those losses or costs that are created on our side,” Radke says.
As digital services develop, Shaam sees the whole way we conceive of travel changing. He has noticed a rise in “natural search” on Omio, with people searching for their actual starting point and destination as opposed to major stations or airports, and foresees this growing. While mobile tickets have boomed, he imagines a future where passengers may not need a ticket at all. “Why do you need a ticket? You don’t need a ticket – you booked it, you paid for it, it’s in your name,” he says. “You sit in that seat and it’s yours. So can we get rid of the ticket altogether, completely conceptually?”
But the biggest trend in Europe right now, he says, is sustainability – which translates into an interest in trains and other alternatives to flights. “People just are more conscious on how they travel, but the fundamental desire to travel has not gone down,” he says. “If anything, it’s an industry that’s growing on a global basis, at such a rapid pace, at such scale. That’s not changed at all.”
Vicki Turk is WIRED’s features editor. She tweets from @VickiTurk
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