Amadeus Global Travel Distribution SA this week became the first to offer a computerized reservations system that lists train schedules alongside airline data, a process previously complicated by the balkanized data formats that different railways have implemented.
Madrid-based Amadeus said the change should make it easier for railways to compete with airlines for travel bookings, especially for high-speed trains that can make trips in less than three hours. Such trains have become commonplace in Europe.
U.K.-based BritRail Ltd. has already signed up to make its train schedules and ticket availability information available to travel agents in the U.S., Canada and other countries. Amadeus officials said they expect to add the Norwegian and Swedish railways in the near future.
Amtrak, the Washington-based U.S. railway, is also talking with Amadeus about using the technology.
But putting those capabilities in place isn't a simple matter. Tim Wesley, rail products manager at Amadeus, said railways haven't followed in the tracks of airlines, which long ago realized the benefits of creating centralized reservations systems with uniform methods of storing passenger names and other data.
"We're having to shoehorn some of the rail functionality into an airline environment to make this work," Wesley said.
Amtrak is working to upgrade its internal systems with XML support and other technology that will let the railway's schedule and fare information be viewable by the nearly 50,000 travel agencies that use the Amadeus system, said Alan Orchison, director of industry alliances at Amtrak.
"We're looking to widen the reach we have across many [ticket] distribution channels," he said.
Much of the BritRail work is being done by Access Rail Inc. The Montreal-based company takes railway information and uses city codes assigned by the International Air Transport Association to convert the data into listings that Amadeus and its competitors in the reservations business can handle.
Denis Grenier, vice president of business development at Access Rail, said railways should be able to reach more travelers by hitching up with airline-created reservations systems like Amadeus.
"The driving force is the railways realizing they cannot cater to the demand that comes from travel agents if they continue to use only their proprietary systems," he said.
Access Rail has also signed a deal to provide rail information to Amadeus rival Sabre Holdings Corp., though Fort Worth, Texas-based Sabre has yet to announce combined air/rail listings. Grenier said he hopes to have similar agreements in place by this fall with Worldspan LP in Atlanta and Galileo International Inc. in Rosemont, Ill., which operate two other big reservations systems.
For Amadeus and its rivals, meanwhile, increasing the railway listings they carry is seen as one way to make their systems more appealing as more travelers use online travel agencies to book trips directly.
The centralized reservations systems "are opening up their eyes to things they never would have before," said Krista Pappas, an analyst at Waltham, Massachusetts-based Gomez Advisors Inc.