World Travel’s international rail department was established about 40 years ago to assist travellers from South Africa with their rail bookings in Europe and the United States. European rail authorities became aware that World Travel staff had extensive knowledge of rail travel and, as a result, appointed the company as their South African representative. World Travel has a portfolio of international rail products that include Eurail, Eurostar, all the European national railways, Amtrak in the USA, VIA Rail Canada and Swiss rail tours. Manager Terri Wright joined editor Dylan Rogers for a chat.
Q: Can you put an estimate on the number of South Africans who book rail travel through you every year?
A: About 55,000 and it’s increased, which confirms how rail travel has become a popular mode of public transportation in Europe, for the South African travel market.
Q: Where are they mostly travelling to? Europe, the United States, Canada?
A: Mostly Europe, although we have seen a gradual increase in sales with our North American product, Amtrak.
Q: Do you take bookings from other African countries?
A: Yes, and we are currently receiving reservations from Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. Sales from our neighbouring countries are steadily increasing.
Q: With rail travel not as common in South Africa as it is abroad, do you face a marketing challenge in this market?
A: Yes, as South Africa does not offer a similar rail product to compare with what’s in Europe. Once the traveller has experienced the rail product, they will recognise the ease of using trains, with no tedious check-in procedures, meaning travellers can generally arrive only minutes before their train departure time. The rail network offers a large selection of schedules and availability, allowing passengers more choice. There are several other reasons to travel by train, including: most stations are located in the heart of the city centre, which means avoiding costly airport transfers, endless queues and security procedures at airports; and train journeys are getting faster every year through the construction of new high-speed lines.
Q: Is the bulk of your business leisure travel, or are you seeing business travellers make use of rail?
A: Most travellers from South Africa are leisure travellers. However, rail travel in Europe is a popular choice for the corporate traveller. Often the First Class cabins are full of corporate travellers actively planning their busy day ahead. Rail travel in Europe is definitely the most efficient mode of transportation for both leisure and corporate travellers, especially for journeys of up to about four hours.
Q: Can you provide a sense of the difference in cost, when compared with air travel?
A: When considering what complete door-to-door travel entails, rail is a competitive mode of transportation. For longer journeys of more than four hours, air transportation may be a more competitive option. When booking rail tickets in advance, travellers have access to a variety of discounted fare options. Most rail passes offer a discounted fare for two or more passengers travelling together and sometimes allow access to other public transportation and discounts on sightseeing – for example, bus and train transportation in Swiss cities.
Q: What are the latest developments in corporate rail travel, in terms of products?
A: There have been some exciting developments, including Wi-Fi on certain trains and at stations, along with dedicated meeting rooms onboard. For example, the Thalys ‘Le Salon’ product, which allows four people to sit together in a private compartment. There is also an option to sit in a ‘quiet coach’ on certain trains and reserve a taxi service for arrival at your destination.
Q: Generally, how do onboard First and Business Class rail products compare with what is offered by the airlines currently?
A: Generally, the high-speed European trains have First and Second Class products. Second Class is more suitable for families on holiday and budget-conscious travellers. First Class on most trains usually includes large reclining seats with more leg room, access to Business Class lounges at major stations, complimentary Wi-Fi onboard on certain trains, complimentary meal onboard, power socket at your seat, access to international newspapers and an option to reserve a taxi service for arrival at your destination.
Q: Are there any current themes or trends in world rail travel that are worth noting?
A: Going Green! A train can use up to 10 times less carbon dioxide than an aeroplane. Studies have shown that rail transport is one of the most energy efficient modes of transportation, per passenger.