When travellers are asked to recall (if they can from direct experience) or describe the ‘golden age of rail travel’ often they’ll place that time period decades ago, perhaps in the 1950s or earlier. But for rail operators and their third-party technology solution providers, there are growing signs we’re living in a type of golden age today.

Both in Europe and the United States ridership is on the rise. According to the Office of Rail Regulation, 1.6 billion rail journeys took place in Great Britain in 2010-2011, an increase of nearly nine per cent over the year before.

Meanwhile in the US, Amtrak reported its highest ridership since the public-private organisation was formed in 1971 with ticket revenue up nearly seven per cent, amounting to $2.02 billion. In the fiscal year ending September 2012, the railway carried 31.2 million passengers.

No matter where passengers heed the call of ‘all aboard’ they’re doing so with the renewed realisation that train travel offers a transit hub network that delivers passengers into the heart of urban downtowns unlike peripheral metropolitan airports. Just as they’ve come to expect tech-centric amenities in other industry verticals, namely air travel and retail, passengers expect similar connectivity and ease-of-use on the rails as they do in the skies.

In other words, onboard retailing opportunities must be as rich and as seamless as air travel if this new golden age of rail travel is to continue.

Achieving that goal requires the latest in onboard retailing technology, borrowed from airlines, but adapted to railroad realities. As the airline industry fought to regain its profitability footing throughout the past decade, various hardware solutions, software and payment processing engines were deployed across many of the world’s most notable carriers to support in-flight sales initiatives – a piece of the industry which now measures well over a billion dollars in gross sales each year. Today, point-of-sale technology must speak specifically for this niche market, built from the ground up – literally.

Now, as the world re-discovers the value of rail travel, third-party solution providers have recognised the need for a new set of specifications and technology design to help rail operators grow and adjust to new market demands, using airline retailing as a template but not a finished product.

A single solution for myriad service needs

The industry needs a fully integrated, seamless retail solution. The ability to service mobile trolleys, buffet coaches and first-class passengers through a single system is essential for complete productivity. Mobile ticket validation and sales synchronisation to an operator’s registration system is also integral to onboard retail success. However, in the limited areas where stock retail and ticketing solutions do exist, they function through separate systems rather than a single solution with all-encompassing capabilities. Integrating your retail technology with your mobile ticketing solution allows for greater onboard efficiencies and improved cost savings.

When tickets go beyond the journey

But what happens when the tickets you sell don’t have to be just for your operation? As we have seen on Eurostar, the sale of tickets to Disneyland Paris makes for a greater sense of service to passengers and a greater share of revenue to the operator.

Linking your retail solution to registration systems beyond your own allows for the sale of tickets to the hottest new show in the West End or you can be sure that your passenger has a limousine pickup awaiting at the station. These value added services make for a win-win-win scenario between the rail operator, its passengers and the wealth of destination-based entertainment and transportation companies wanting to provide a memorable experience to your passengers once they have left your coaches. Having a solution that incorporates a merchandising into your entire destination network will allow you to extend your service beyond the travel journey.

A global outlook on payments

Global leaders like GuestLogix are a good place to start, processing millions of transactions a month in dozens of different currencies across five continents. Today’s payment options are as varied as those who ride the rails and include:

• Magnetic strip
• Chip & PIN
• Contactless cards
• Loyalty points
• Digital wallets

But no matter which payment method is preferred, the selected processing system must be flexible and robust enough to handle these multiple pathways toward making a purchase.

Recently, US Airways went live with an advanced contactless solution GuestLogix developed with MasterCard to speed up transactions in the air. Instead of being operated by crew, the airline’s passengers tap their contactless-enabled credit cards on the back of the point-of-sale device in the cabin. The result is reduced service times which can increase the amount of passengers that flight attendants serve within a given flight.

Adding this type of solution to a buffet carriage service would certainly reduce queues which have been a growing concern for operators since the incorporation of Chip & PIN payments years ago.

But whatever payment method is used, these types of solutions meet the growing demands of the savvy global traveller – and those travelling by rail.

A personalised onboard experience

To deliver a truly personal experience for every passenger is well within reach. Date of travel, destination and country of origin are only just the beginning. Tapping into passenger profiles with retail technology for meal preferences, loyalty status and any individualised special needs for each traveler is the key to unlocking a new sense of onboard service. Crews should have the ability to target passengers with special offers and recommend relevant products and services to the potential buyer. These functions have greatly elevated onboard service and are always reflected in the sales generated from each journey.

Managing performance through business intelligence

Spreadsheets, summary reports, transaction data are all disparate, disjointed means of analysing performance and forecasting provisioning requirements. While sophisticated retail analytics tools exist, a solution designed for traditional brick and mortar retailing can only be reconstructed for the rail industry to a certain point, and the financial investment in these tools can outweigh the payoff.

Rail operators need business intelligence tools that were designed with their specifications in mind; tools that can hone in on the necessary metrics and key performance indicators that make a difference to their business.

Harnessing the power of data and translating it into real-time decisions is what has taken many travel operations from strong to beyond expectation, vastly improving wastage, crew performance, sales and stock management.

Tunnel vision for the rail industry

As the rail industry continues its development throughout Europe and the rest of the world, and as passengers learn that they don’t need the ‘sky to fly’, GuestLogix will continue delivering the lessons from a decade of service to the airline industry into a brand new set of standards and retail excellence on the track so that ‘all aboard’ is synonymous with ‘buy onboard’.

Thomas Drohan is senior vice-president and general manager – Global Rail Division at GuestLogix. www.guestlogix.com