Of Speed & Steel

In sur­pris­ing travel mar­kets around the world, high-speed rail is in high gear

Business Traveler (USA) - - INSIDE -

In travel mar­kets around the world, high-speed rail is in high gear, mak­ing it the travel in­dus­try’s most dy­namic sec­tor

Over the past five years, high-speed rail has been mak­ing se­ri­ous in­roads on short- and medium-haul travel routes in re­gions around the world, es­pe­cially in Europe and Asia. As a re­sult it’s be­com­ing the travel in­dus­try’s most dy­namic and fastest­grow­ing sec­tor.

As busi­ness trav­el­ers spread out across the globe, they’re at­tracted to high-speed rail be­cause of price, the abil­ity to work en route, WiFi con­nec­tiv­ity, ar­rivals and de­par­tures in city cen­ters and the thought of avoid­ing air­port check-in, se­cu­rity, pass­port con­trol and board­ing.

“If we look around Europe and at what the Chi­nese are do­ing around high­speed tech­nolo­gies, the rail tech­nol­ogy in­no­va­tion curve is still climb­ing very steeply,”says Aaron Gow­ell, CEO of Sil­verRail, a con­sol­ida­tor of pas­sen­ger rail prod­ucts.“In air travel, as a tech­nol­ogy prod­uct, the plane is just about tapped out. Trains are get­ting faster and faster and faster and get­ting into jet-like speeds.”

Re­search has shown that if travel time is un­der four hours – whether it be Bos­ton to NewYork, Lon­don to Paris or Madrid to Barcelona – the train will take away 50 per­cent of the share from the air­lines.

“In Spain they opened up a rail line be­tween Madrid and Barcelona a few years ago that was a six-hour trip and they popped in a high-speed line and it knocked the travel time to two hours,” Gow­ell says.“That train now has a mar­ket share of 70 per­cent. Speed, there­fore, is the fu­ture of rail travel.”

Rails Around the Globe

In China, the de­vel­op­ment high-speed rail net­works both in terms of length of track and speed of trains has out­paced the rest of the world by a large mar­gin. The coun­try has opened more than 5,780 miles of high­speed track in the last five years, in­clud­ing the re­cent launch of China’s Bei­jingGuangzhou line, the world’s long­est high-speed line (1,428 miles), which cuts over­land travel time be­tween the two cities from 22 hours to only eight. Plans call for ex­tend­ing the net­work to 74,500 miles through­out the coun­try by 2020.

Spain holds the hon­ors for the most high-speed track­age in Europe – 1,656 miles, sec­ond in the world only to China. With the open­ing of the high-speed through ser­vice link be­tween Madrid and Paris via Barcelona and Lyon sched­uled for this spring, trav­el­ers will be able to get from Lon­don all the way to Madrid and be­yond by high-speed train.

In France and Ger­many, di­rect con­nec­tions be­tween Frank­furt and Mar­seille via Stras­boug, Mul­house and Lyon have been launched by SNCF and Deutsche Bahn, re­spec­tively. Deutsche Bahn has also an­nounced plans for di­rect links from Lon­don to Frank­furt via Brus­sels and Cologne, as well as con­nec­tions to Am­s­ter­dam via Rot­ter­dam.

“Dereg­u­la­tion is go­ing to be the big­gest change you see on a global ba­sis and you’ll see trains cross­ing bor­ders all over Europe in a way you haven’t seen be­fore,”Gow­ell says.“The Euro­pean Union ba­si­cally said you have to sep­a­rate your track from rail

car­rier and any­one can rent time on a track.”The‘any­one’Gow­ell refers to are called train op­er­at­ing com­pa­nies (TOCs), and while there are some skep­tics who ques­tion whether that’s any way to run a rail­road, the hoped-for ef­fect would be to en­cour­age com­pe­ti­tion by de­mo­nop­o­liz­ing the sys­tem.

Mean­while in Turkey, the Ankara– Is­tan­bul line is ex­pected to open by the end of Septem­ber 2013, as part of a wider pro­ject con­nect­ing Ankara with Izmir and Bursa, and reach­ing An­talya, Erz­in­can, Kay­seri and Si­vas by 2023.

The neigh­bor­ing na­tions of Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia have an­nounced plans to de­velop a high-speed rail ser­vice that will con­nect Kuala Lumpur and Sin­ga­pore by 2020. The fu­ture link will cut ground time be­tween the two cap­i­tals to 90 min­utes, in­stead of the six-hour day trip or eighthour overnight trip on the KTMB (Malaysia Rail­way) or a four-hour bus ride.

In ad­di­tion, around the world other high-speed rail projects are ei­ther al­ready un­der con­struc­tion or in dis­cus­sion, in­clud­ing the first high-speed rail projects in In­dia, Morocco and Thai­land.

Con­nect­ing North Amer­ica

In a by­gone era, rail­roads were largely re­spon­si­ble for ty­ing to­gether the vast North Amer­i­can con­ti­nent, po­lit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally. But the propen­sity of Amer­i­cans to want to cover ever-greater dis­tances at ever-in­creas­ing speeds pushed the de­vel­op­ment air travel in the last cen­tury and left rail pas­sen­ger ser­vice wav­ing good­bye at the sta­tion.

With the advent of high-speed rail tech­nol­ogy, how­ever, and its proven suc­cess in Europe and Asia, the ex­pec­ta­tions for North Amer­ica rail have blos­somed. Am­trak’s record rid­er­ship num­bers – more than 31.2 mil­lion pas­sen­gers in FY2012, the high­est since op­er­a­tions started in 1971 – has en­cour­aged the rail­road to pay more than lip ser­vice to ad­vanc­ing im­prove­ments in in­fra­struc­ture, en­hanc­ing sched­ules and rais­ing ser­vice lev­els.

A re­port is­sued by Am­trak last fall re­vealed the com­pany’s on­go­ing plans to ex­pand ca­pac­ity along its busy North­east Cor­ri­dor (NEC) rail net­work. The re­port out­lined an ap­proach to ac­com­mo­date more trains op­er­at­ing at faster speeds with sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced trip-times and im­proved ser­vice re­li­a­bil­ity. It also ad­dressed plans to de­velop 220 mph next gen­er­a­tion high-speed rail.

“The NEC re­gion is Amer­ica’s eco­nomic pow­er­house and is fac­ing a se­vere cri­sis with an ag­ing and con­gested multi-modal trans­porta­tion net­work that rou­tinely op­er­ates at or near ca­pac­ity in key seg­ments,”says Joe Board­man, Am­trak’s pres­i­dent and CEO.“For Amer­ica to be glob­ally com­pet­i­tive in the com­ing years, we must be equal to the chal­lenge be­fore us and make the nec­es­sary in­vest­ments to de­sign and im­ple­ment the NEC im­prove­ments that will serve the re­gion and the na­tion for the cen­tury ahead.”

Sev­eral ma­jor projects are al­ready un­der­way that will im­prove ex­ist­ing ser­vices and sup­port the Am­trak NEC vi­sion. Among them is $15 mil­lion to­ward the Gate­way Pro­gram, a pro­posed high­speed rail cor­ri­dor be­tween Ne­wark, NJ and Mid­town Man­hat­tan in NewYork. The ini­tial amount is ear­marked for de­vel­op­ing the de­sign and car­ry­ing out a pre­lim­i­nary en­vi­ron­men­tal re­view.

An­other $450 mil­lion in the Fed­eral Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s bud­get would be used to im­prove ser­vice re­li­a­bil­ity for in­ter­city and com­muter trains, mod­ern­ize the elec­tri­cal sys­tem and boost top speeds from 135 mph to 160 mph along a 24-mile sec­tion of the NEC be­tween Tren­ton and New Brunswick, NJ.

Other US high-speed rail cor­ri­dors al­ready in de­vel­op­ment or in the plan­ning stages are the 110-mph line con­nect­ing St. Louis to Chicago – which will re­duce travel times from five hours to closer to three­and-a-half – and the much-an­tic­i­pated Cal­i­for­nia high-speed rail, which has be­come some­thing of a po­lit­i­cal football in the bud­get bat­tles be­ing waged in both Wash­ing­ton and Sacra­mento.

Cana­dian car­rier Via Rail has ded­i­cated sig­nif­i­cant re­sources over the past four years to in­crease the speed its trains are trav­el­ing on its busiest routes. Within a cou­ple of years, pas­sen­gers will be trav­el­ing at speeds close to 95 mph be­tween the ma­jor metropoli­tan ar­eas of Toronto, Ot­tawa and Mon­treal.

“We’re well aware that the global rail trend is to­wards the growth of high-speed rail and the ben­e­fits that come with it from a con­ve­nience and en­vi­ron­men­tal stand­point. That’s why we are en­sur­ing that our ex­ist­ing equip­ment can travel at it’s high­est pos­si­ble speeds,”says

Ryan Robutka,Via Rail’s se­nior man­ager, Amer­i­cas.“We an­tic­i­pate true high-speed rail to emerge in the US in the com­ing years and that could be the be­gin­ning of a North Amer­i­can high-speed rail sys­tem.”

Tick­ets Please

As the speed of the trains has ac­cel­er­ated, so has the de­mand for train travel. And with that rise in de­mand, the ad­vance­ments aren’t just on the rails; the tech­nol­ogy of tick­ets is also mak­ing big strides into the Dig­i­tal Age. How­ever turn­ing that sys­tem around and go­ing global means over­com­ing his­tory and a great deal of in­er­tia.

“In July we launched elec­tronic tick­et­ing na­tion­wide and it re­ally broke with 50 years of rail tra­di­tion as it gave us what the air­lines had for some time,”Matt Hardi­son, Am­trak’s chief mar­ket­ing and sales of­fi­cer, says.“The back­bone of our new tick­et­ing sys­tems is mo­bile, and it’s de­signed to al­low our con­duc­tors to have real-time ac­cess to our reser­va­tion sys­tem in­for­ma­tion so they can val­i­date tick­ets on board. What this has done has fun­da­men­tally changed the ex­pe­ri­ence and flex­i­bil­ity of rail for our cus­tomers.”

Tick­et­ing varies by coun­try, but in gen­eral there are three ways of ob­tain­ing pas­sage aboard a train: (1) e-ticket (sim­i­lar to air), (2) at the sta­tion counter with a book­ing ref­er­ence (sim­i­lar to pick­ing up your board­ing pass at an air­port) and (3) pa­per.

“The dis­tri­bu­tion of rail in Europe is frag­mented and lo­cal,”says Peter Ash­worth, vice pres­i­dent of Carl­son Wagonlit Travel’s trav­eler and trans­ac­tion ser­vices, Europe, Mid­dle-East and Africa. “Change is com­ing, al­beit slowly. The Euro­pean Union has de­cided that a sys­tem must be de­vel­oped to hold all rail con­tent. The ex­pec­ta­tion is that this will take years to ac­com­plish.”

“For trav­el­ers, the most ef­fi­cient book­ing process is on­line,”says David Coppens, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of per­for­mance so­lu­tions for BCD Travel.“In Europe, un­til rail providers con­sol­i­date their ef­forts to give the in­dus­try a sin­gle plat­form, some in­ef­fi­ciency in book­ing and tick­et­ing will re­main.”

“We an­tic­i­pate true high-speed rail to emerge in the US in the com­ing years”

Seek­ing the Rosetta Stone

Many rail in­dus­try ob­servers agree that, un­like the air­lines, there may never be a sin­gle ticket that a trav­eler can pur­chase to al­low travel through dif­fer­ent sta­tions in dif­fer­ent coun­tries.

Al­though the avi­a­tion busi­ness is fiercely com­pet­i­tive, the ma­jor air­lines de­cided some 50-plus years ago that they could agree to share codes and cre­ate an air book­ing sys­tem that made sense for pas­sen­gers and for the in­dus­try. Train travel never got that far, though; the tech­nol­ogy and book­ing sys­tems that rail­road com­pa­nies have de­ployed over the years are com­pletely unique to their own op­er­a­tions and there are no sys­tems that work to­gether.

“What some­body has to do is build a mas­ter sys­tem that sits on top of all of th­ese guys – sort of a Rosetta Stone for rail, so that it rein­ter­prets the Ger­man sys­tem, the Ital­ian sys­tem, the French sys­tem, all into a com­mon set of lan­guages and codes,”Sil­veRails’Gow­ell says.“The cor­po­rate trav­eler is in­cred­i­bly frus­trated by the travel tools that are be­ing used.”

Sev­eral travel providers and con­sol­ida­tors have promis­ing tech­nol­ogy in the mak­ing, but it’s dif­fi­cult to pre­dict how long it will be un­til the end-user sees changes. In 2011, the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion launched the Telem­at­ics Ap­pli­ca­tions for Pas­sen­ger Ser­vices Tech­ni­cal Spec­i­fi­ca­tions for In­ter­op­er­abil­ity – bless­edly fore­short­ened to sim­ply TAP TSI – that prom­ises to“con­trib­ute to an in­ter­op­er­a­ble and cost-ef­fi­cient in­for­ma­tion ex­change sys­tem for Europe,” ac­cord­ing to the pro­gram’s Web site. The goal for TAP TSI is a com­pat­i­ble sys­tem that will pro­vide high qual­ity rail con­tent and ticket is­su­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties to pas­sen­gers in a cost ef­fec­tive man­ner.

Phase One of the process, which in­cludes de­vel­op­ing a mas­ter plan, was com­pleted in May 2012. The heavy lift­ing comes in the next step as the ini­tia­tive starts to de­velop an ac­tual work­ing data ex­change sys­tem.

“There is an ini­tia­tive by the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion called TAP TSI, work­ing to­ward Euro­pean-wide stan­dards for all types of rail­way in­dus­try in­ter­ests,”says Coppens of BCD Travel.“It may grease the tracks so to speak, in the cre­ation of an ef­fi­cient ex­change of in­for­ma­tion among rail sup­pli­ers.”

In the mean­time, oth­ers are at work on the prob­lem as well. Travel tech­nol­ogy provider Amadeus fea­tures a rail man­age­ment sys­tem that en­ables TOCs to man­age their op­er­a­tions and to of­fer seats across mul­ti­ple sales chan­nels us­ing its flex­i­ble book­ing and rail cus­tomer man­age­ment sys­tem.

“What we are try­ing to do is make rail avail­able in the sys­tems be­ing used by travel agents be­cause to­day rail isn’t of­ten vis­i­ble,”says Tom Drexler, the com­pany’s di­rec­tor of rail.“It’s tricky. We are build­ing our own GDS (global dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem) for rail start­ing in Europe with the top high-speed rail op­er­a­tors and we’ll be adding more net­works in the com­ing months,”he adds.

Sil­verRail is de­vel­op­ing a logic struc­ture of stan­dards for the rail in­dus­try, work­ing with TOCs to pro­vide ac­cess to any travel seller through a sin­gle con­nec­tion. The pro­ject is about halfway through Europe right now and looks to be com­plete in the next two years.

“We have a mas­ter code data­base for ev­ery sin­gle rail sta­tion in the world so they all are on the same struc­ture. And once you do that, you can start to jour­ney-plan across the mul­ti­ple rail lines that are out there,”Gow­ell says.“We have stan­dard­ized the way the whole shop­ping process works, the book­ing process, so once you are in our sys­tem, they all work ex­actly the same way, whether you are look­ing at Am­trak, the Ger­man sys­tem or the one in the UK.” BT

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