BRITAIN’s first online rail ticketing system went live on Thursday February 25. Tickets and seat reservations where available can be ordered with secure payment over the internet for services operated by all 25 British franchises using software developed by Virgin Trains and IT specialists Cap Gemini. TheTrainLine is part of a £35m investment by Virgin Trains in telesales facilities.

Unveiling the new service at his home in west London on February 23, Virgin Group president Richard Branson said that the proportion of Virgin Trains’ ticket revenue earned through telesales has increased from 1·5 to 15% in the last two years. He expected the online service and a new telesales centre in Edinburgh to help increase this proportion to 30% within a few years.

Virgin has a commitment in its franchise agreement to look at the feasibility of online ticket sales, but TheTrainLine goes well beyond this. To meet the requirements of the Rail Regulator, the system is totally impartial, offering tickets for any operator meeting the user’s specification. There is no additional charge over the standard fare, but Virgin will collect the 9% commission on ticket sales allowed under the Association of Train Operating Company’s revenue settlement arrangements.

TheTrainLine’s database combines the full Railtrack timetable, updated every 24 h for engineering works, with the full ATOC fares manuals and the Regulator’s national routing guide - the first time it has been codified. It allows the system to offer 10 million fares for 500000 seats on 10000 trains a day.

Development of TheTrainLine’s software has taken a year so far - six months for planning and the same for testing using a wide range of sample journeys taken from Virgin Trains’ telesales centre. IT manager Jeremy Acklam expects ongoing refinements as practical experience throws up anomalies, such as a rare permitted route for which no fares had been issued, and a failure to recognise a long journey routing with a permissible overnight stop en route.

Users are registered by e-mail address and password, which they must use to enter the site each time. Route selection is similar to an online timetable. This generates a pick list of available fares for each train, including any cut-price restricted-use fares where a quota is still available (right). Once a combination of trains and tickets has been selected, payment can be made by credit or debit card using SSL security software.

Tickets can be sent by post or collected from a Virgin station - initially limited to London Euston, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow. Other stations will be added gradually, including some other operators’ principal stations. By late summer Virgin hopes to have self-service collection points at its main stations, where tickets will be printed out on the insertion of a credit card for identification. Hardware for this has been selected, but some more software development is required. Also to be developed is a specific module for business travel bookings, including the option for companies to open an account with TheTrainLine - expected within the next few months.

Virgin Trains is already using TheTrainLine to help telesales staff handle bookings, and would consider making the system available to other operators if required. Strategy Director Will Whitehorn insisted that the initiative did not undermine Virgin’s commitment to the ATOC-led Rail Journey Information System which is due to be rolled out in the autumn, but rather complemented it.

  • Virgin Trains has launched a dedicated telephone ticket booking service for business travellers. Business Express provides a personalised service on a separate phone number to its other telephone-based services, and offers the complete range of full-fare tickets, together with other facilities such as Virgin’s CarLink door-to-door service. Business Express will hold details of customers’ preferred seat types and usual routes to reduce the time that repeat ordering of tickets takes to a minimum. Business accounts are also available.

    CAPTION: TheTrainLine -