Amadeus leads EC effort to integrate European rail data
The consortium, called All Ways Travelling, will commission Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, Germany, to complete an in-depth study of multi-modality (meaning, travel by various modes of transport, especially rail and urban transport systems).
The study will evaluate economic and technical considerations for sharing and integrating schedules, capacities, and routes; customer needs and market size; and the necessary steps the industry would need to take to enable journey planning and ticketing.
The study should be completed by the end of the year.
In 2014, the consortium would build a “proof-of-concept” booking tool based on the recommendations.
In theory, the tool would be like a point-to-point metasearch site, like a bare bones Rome2Rio.
The booking tool would let a traveler see if it might make more sense, for example, to travel by air part-way to their destination and then by long-distance rail the rest of the way — or if an urban commuter line would do a better job of taking the traveler the last leg of your journey.
The study’s possible conclusions
To learn more, Tnooz spoke by phone with Tom Drexler, global head of Amadeus Rail and Ground Transportation, who previously spent eight years in Deutsche Bahn’s sales department. Drexler said:
It will be the consortium’s job to build a “proof-of-concept” multi-modal booking tool.
To do that, it makes sense to use what’s already there, data-wise.
The railways have managed to create a database with basic timetable data and schedule content, MERITS. [Editor’s note: MERITS — Multiple European Railways Integrated Timetable Storage – is a database overseen by the International Union of Railways, or UIC, and every rail company that participates in UIC can get the data.]
To create our proof-of-concept booking tool, we could feed more data into MERITS.
I can’t predict what conclusions the study will make, but that’s one idea that might be proposed for us the consortium to implement..
MERITS has its limitations. It’s undifferentiated data. There’s no pricing or yield info.
The database doesn’t reflect up-to-the-minute changes. Deutsche Bahn updates it fairly frequently, approximately every second week or so, I think, while other national rail companies submit updates only every four weeks or so.
Still, for 90% of use cases you could use the MERITS database and have a powerful database in place for a tool.
On top of that database, you would need a journey planner algorithm. The study would have to come up with ideas of how to go about creating that.
Once the consortium’s work is done, about 18 months from now, Amadeus sees its role as serving as a technology provider.
That could mean us working on building the journey planner, or creating tools for after sales, reservations, ticketing — all the tech behind rail distribution, which is where we can bring in our expertise from air.
Is another working group necessary?
The need for a prototype of a multi-modal booking tool may be questioned by others in the industry.
Amadeus itself already has an impressive prototype. Its prototype lacks the booking system connectivity to turn it into something useful, but that would be true of the one likely to be created by this consortium, too.
Similarly, Waymate and GoEuro have recently received a large amount of commercial funding to tackle exactly the same multimodal challenge, while Wanderio and Rome2Rio are posing strong challenges with working retail products, too.
Amadeus’s move may be an attempt to leverage its closeness to the European Commission (EC) to address this competitive challenge from multi-modal startups, as well as from other B2B technology providers, such as SilverRail.
Even if that is not true, none of these multi-modal prototypes will matter until rail operators become willing to sign commercial deals separately for technical integrations.
Amadeus playing the long game
To date, “Europe-level” working groups on rail data standardization have been too abstract and slow moving to affect real change on the ground, according to some critics.
For example, the first EC initiative to create a multi-modal integration began in 2009 and has yet to see any prototypes tested.
Amadeus appears to be betting that, by taking a leadership role in this particular consortium, it can align the various stakeholders and create a project that provides practical technical and commercial information to the industry — speeding up the pace of integration of pan-European rail distribution systems.
And the Madrid-based GDS is definitely taking a leadership role. The study is being conducted by Zeppelin University, a decade-old school that the Amadeus’s German division gave money to for underwriting the development of a research center for business model innovations for mobility and to create an independent, part-time master’s degree program.
The university is already involved in the advisory and consultancy mandates of the federal German government, giving it the ear of officials in Berlin’s various transportation-related ministries.
By extension, Amadeus appears to have broad control over the shape that the study will take.
If its consortium succeeds in leveraging the MERITS dataset beyond individual rail operators, that will be a huge step forward both for the GDS and for the industry at large.
Forcing conversations at the executive level of railway operators may also have beneficial effects for all players involved, including consumers.
Obstacles to overcome
Drexler also talked about the broader challenges facing European rail distribution, beyond the consortium.
One of his biggest concerns it that the industry needs to define standards for inter-operability of trans-European conventional and high-speed and urban public transport.
In the simplest example, the station code for Madrid should be the same for all railway systems. Right now, one rail company might use one code to identify Madrid while another company might use a different code. (For more, see Tnooz’s earlier piece, “European rail desperately needs smarter online booking platforms.”)
Fragmentation in the market is the biggest obstacle to getting to the booking of multi-modal transport. The national rail players are focused on home markets. That’s the reason why we haven’t seen so far some standardization among national railway companies across Europe.
It’s similar to the early days or airline industry. IATA [the International Air Transport Association] had to work hard to define standards. That’s one reason why we’ve included IATA’s voice in our consortium.
I’m confident standards will arise. Industry talks are speeding up standardization efforts. TAP-TSI [Telematics Applications for Passenger Services — Technical Specifications for Interoperability, a European Commission project] may have initial success by 2016 or so, for the FSM [Full Service Model].
We’ve discussed standardization with all the players, such as UIC [the International Union of Railways], and I think there’s momentum in this direction.
Opportunity for startups
It’s at the local level that Drexler sees the greatest opportunity for startups to join the effort.
National railways are focused on their home markets, but if you go down one level to public transportation authorities, the market is even more local.
For example, in Germany, you have about 70 urban public transporation authorities that more or less run according to their own business models. There are no standards for sharing data with national or international providers.
We might like to add some content like urban public transport fare and schedule information, and even taxi content.
This is where we see startups coming in as partners. We want to work with startups to solve problems with whatever functionality or components can’t be provided by the major stakeholders.
In early June, the industry already had a stakeholder meeting in Brussels overseen by DG Move [Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport], with interesting presentations from some local small businesses trying to solve multimodal challenges, including small local companies from the Czech Republic and Austria.
When it comes to the technological challenges facing local level public transport authorities, startups may be the best placed to solve for the technical issues as partners. For a city like Vienna, a startup’s solutions might help to put together all of the type of content in a queryable way.
Amadeus’s main partners
The Amadeus-led consortium includes the European rail industry association (UNIFE), Thales [which provides railway signaling solutions], IATA, BeNe Rail (a joint venture between the National Belgian Railway Company (NMBS), and Dutch Railways (NS) for international sales and distribution).
Perhaps more importantly, the consortium has a behind-the-scenes, ten-member advisory board, which includes representatives from Germany’s national rail operator Deutsche Bahn, France’s national rail operator SNCF, and other major industry players.
Notably absent are some B2B players, such as Silverrail.
The first GDS for rail
In Drexler’s main role at Amadeus, he oversees the building of what Amadeus likes to call the first global distribution system (GDS) for rail.
Amadeus is putting together the content of the major railway operators in Europe. It’s already working with Trenitalia, SNCF, Deutsch Bahn, British Rail, and some other companies.
It aims to make this content bookable for the indirect channels, like travel agencies, OTAs, and travel management companies (TMCs).
The long-sought dream
Amadeus’s goals dovetail with the goals of the European Commission (EC), which has yearned for multi-modal route comparison, ideally with point-to-point pricing, for years. The EC wants to make the European market more competitive as well as to promote carbon-neutral forms of transportation like rail.
But state monopolies and regulators have been slow to take steps to permit such a thing to happen, and private companies have failed to create messaging standards and to agree upon how to take undifferentiated timetable and schedule information and turn it into query-able data that can be understood by each others’ computer systems.
The commission has established a series of benchmarks and a timetable to goad stakeholders to cooperate, and this Amadeus-led consortium is the latest effort.
Sean O’Neill had roles as a reporter and editor-in-chief at Tnooz between July 2012 and January 2017.