Companies and organisations of all complexions within the global railway industry are embracing the Internet. From discussion groups and bulletin boards run for and by enthusiasts to the research programmes of academic institutions, information on railways is being presented by an ever-growing number of bodies to an ever-growing number of users. At the end of 1996, around 70 million people were thought to have access to the Internet.

The most basic form of corporate railway site on the Internet acts as a public relations tool, presenting a profile of the company and sometimes news, financial performance and staff changes. This kind of site has been widely adopted, from the Antofagasta (Chili) & Bolivia Railway through Class I railways in the USA, main line networks in Europe and several railways in Japan.

Marketing potential

For passenger operators ranging in size from metros and suburban railways to national networks, the addition of a basic marketing function presenting information on services and fares is a logical progression. The scope of such information often varies. Timetables may cover principal routes only or allow journeys between any two points on a network to be planned. Information on fares and on-board services ranges from the most basic to complete electronic brochures.

This type of marketing may be undertaken by third parties. Britain’s Railtrack launched its own Internet site on January 1. Designed by Clarity Communications, the site combines Railtrack corporate information with an electronic timetable planner supplied by BR Business Systems, the IT subsidiary sold on February 5 to Sema Group. Responsible for train scheduling, Railtrack publishes the conventional paper-based Great Britain Passenger Timetable; BRBS produces a disc-based version for PCs known as Rail Planner.

Unlike its paper and disc-based predecessors, the timetable available on Railtrack’s site and the ’UK Railways on the Net’ site operated by BRBS is automatically updated twice a week using information downloaded from Railtrack’s mainframe computers. In addition to fares and timetable information from participating Train Operating Companies, ’UK Railways on the Net’ also displays details of that traditional bugbear of weekend rail travel, scheduled engineering works.

According to BRBS, the Railtrack site received some 270000 requests for timetable information in its first four weeks of operation. Similar point-to-point journey planning services are provided on the sites of national operators in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany, for example.

Retail possibilities

A report on electronic commerce published in January by Britain’s Interactive Media in Retail Group noted that at the end of 1996 there were 40000 commercial Internet sites listed on the Commercial Sites Index, a figure that was growing at more than 500 each week. Several passenger operators are now looking to the Internet to provide them with a ticket sales presence outside their stations and agents.

VIA Rail Canada claims to be the first railway in the world to have offered ticketing through the Internet with its VIA Resernet service, where holders of credit cards complete a sequence of forms on screen. Tickets can then be posted to addresses in Canada or forwarded for collection by the purchaser from VIA ticket offices, travel agents (in Canada or the USA) or general sales agents (outside North America). Sleeper bookings are to be made available on Resernet at a later date.

German Railway offers a similar service, where a form is completed on screen and forwarded electronically, or printed out and faxed to a DB station or travel agent. Credit cards are accepted and the tickets are dispatched by post within four working days.

Amtrak, Eurostar (UK) - whose site registers 60000 to 70000 visits a month - and Swiss Federal Railways are working to introduce something similar this year, and BRBS reports that many British TOCs are ’definitely interested’. On the other hand, many operators with Internet sites are still content to refer enquirers to conventional ticketing outlets and telesales facilities.

One potential problem is the secure transmission of credit card information, complicated in some countries by government controls on the sale and distribution of encryption software. VIA’s Resernet requires the use of an SSL-compliant browser to ensure a secure environment, but Britain’s IMRG believes that many obstacles will be removed by a new Microsoft product due for release this year. Merchant Server 1·0, it believes, will transform corporate Internet sites into secure transaction-processing environments and lead to an ’explosion’ in electronic commerce as companies realise that a non-transactional Internet site is ’a waste of cyberspace’. o

CAPTION: Centre: Netherlands Railways offers an international journey planner on its web site:

Below: Among the many operators using the web for general marketing is the Ferrocarril de Antofagasta (Chili) a Bolivia:

Right: Moving graphics and bilingual presentation are a feature of the site operated by Japan’s Nagoya Railway: