Capitaine Train is France’s first well designed website for booking European rail tickets
Aiming to be a Expedia for train travel, Capitaine Train is the first booking site to distribute all of the offers of the two major railway companies in Europe: French railway SNCF and German rail company Deutsche Bahn.
The French startup aims to make the purchase of European train tickets as pleasant and efficient as possible, focusing first on domestic sales of French sales of inter-city and cross-border rail travel—a multi-billion-euro market.
A truly French saga
Until February 2009, French national railway SNCF only allowed Expedia to have access to its database and API. But in that month, the French competition authority mandated that the monopoly open its data to startups that want to sell train travel online.
Three engineers Jean-Daniel Guyot, Valentin Surrel, and Martin Ottenwaelter saw this news, and started coding to create a booking service.
At first, SNCF refused to give Capitaine Train access to its API. It cited a law that Capitaine Train wasn’t a registered travel agency, a process in which the agency has to set aside 92,000 euros in a bank account as a guarantee.
Capitaine Train raised money from angel investors and purchased the insurance. It then received access to SNCF data in September 2010. Weirdly, the contract required a low ratio between searches and bookings, so Capitaine had to scale up slowly.
In March 2011, Capitaine Train launched a beta test version of its booking site. Between then and December 2011, about 7,000 customers purchased about 40,000 tickets through it.
During 2012, the co-founders raised 1.4 million euro from Index Ventures, CIC Capital Privé, angel investors Roland Coutas, co-founder of TravelPrice and Fotolia CEO Oleg Tscheltzoff, co-founder of Amen, among other investors.
In May 2012, the startup signed a contract with Deutsche Bahn, gaining access to the rail company’s fare and schedule data.
On 8 October 2012, Capitaine Train came out of beta.
Today it offers tickets on SNCF Voyages, the division that operates long-distance trains in France, and Deutsche Bahn (DB). For example, on a Paris/Frankfurt route, Captain Train will compare the tariff of the SNCF and DB fares and recommend the cheaper of the two.
As a travel agency, carriers (SNCF, iDTGV, Deutsche Bahn) give Capitaine Train a small commission on every ticket it sells. On a 100 euro ticket, it typically keeps four for itself.
As of today, there is no advertising on the site, unlike SNCF’s and DB’s sites, and it is much more stable and easier to navigate.
The company’s goal is to aggregate train ticket sales for all European train companies, putting it in competition with every national railway company website plus booking sites like RailEurope.
The site already sells Eurostar Eurostar and Thalys tickets.**Corrected March 14: The post originally said Capitaine Train hasn’t yet started selling Eurostar tickets. I regret the error.
The company assumes that its talks with that other European rail companies will be slow.
Earlier this month, the site added a Passbook option, which can be enabled in the site’s preferences, and presents the bar code for a ticket in a manner that’s scannable by a train conductor from a smart phone screen.
Q&A with Guillaume Jouanno, who is responsible for client services for Capitaine Train:
Why should people or companies use your startup?
Today: because it’s very fast and simple.
Soon: because we’ll be the first website that sells tickets for any European train journey.
Purchasing tickets on the SNCF website and the websites of most other rail companies has been notoriously difficult and annoying.
The experience only gets worse when you want to book tickets for rail travel crossing borders and involving multiple national railways. We want to solve this problem, for anyone who ever booked an interline train ticket online.
Our motto is “We sell train tickets. Super fast.”
Other than going viral and receiving mountains of positive PR, what is the strategy for raising awareness and getting customers/users?
Currently, our entire strategy is about excellent customer service. Customer service is a huge word of mouth opportunity. We really strive to deliver the best experience imaginable.
How did your initial idea evolve?
At first, we wanted to be the Google of train tickets: one text field, natural language, nothing else.
But we thought it would be too disruptive. Maybe even impossible.
Eventually we chose another approach, more traditional but still very simple.
Where do you see yourselves within 3 years?
Today the startup has a team of 14, with nine developers and additional customer support personnel. There are currently six positions open, and we aim to hire more employees as our business scales. [Correction: I had mistakenly written six developers. Sorry.]
In three years, we hope to be a polyglot website (with at least an English and a German version) which handles all the majors carriers in Europe.
And perhaps, an iPhone app soon. 🙂
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that requires another startup to help it out?
I’ll let “the man in seat 61“, Mark Smith, a former UK railwayman who has become the leading writer on European rail, answer that:
“It would be lovely, if there was a single website that sold tickets for any European train journey at the cheapest price, but there isn’t.
You need to use different websites for different journeys in different countries, and sometimes need to split the journey, booking one leg here and the next leg there.”
Consider his list of websites a traveler would need to visit to book a typical cross-border rail trip in Europe. It’s quite complex, don’t you think?
We believe that’s wrong. We hope to change that.
The success of Capitaine Train to date is impressive. It is focusing on a problem consumers are willing to pay for a solution to, in which switching costs are low, and it is focused on customer service and providing a smart user experience.
But all is not rosy. Like all entrepreneurs, these founders are going against a national culture that, broadly speaking, has historically disdained entrepreneurs.
The lack of help from banks, the lack of mentoring from fellow investors, and the lack of support from friends of family can combine to make launching a Web startup in France harder than in some other countries.
Yet Paris, in particular, attitudes are changing. Now may be an ideal time to launch a startup.
The rise of sites like music service Deezer and changes to taxation laws in recent years are encouraging the development of entrepreneurship, and the avant-garde Capitaine Train may hopefully get a push forward from this shifting tide of sentiment.
Capitaine Train’s success takes place against the backdrop of a movement of entrepreneurs in France, called the Geonpi, or pigeons—a slang word for people who are being taken advantage of. In their view, entrepreneurs are taken advantage of by monopolies that use their contacts in the government to erect artificial barriers and prevent competition and innovation.[To clarify, Capitaine Train, as a company, is not involved in the Geonpi movement, though Jean-Daniel Guyot, its CEO, wrote a “tribune” to express his thoughts about a financial act the French government was working on, and his opinions aligned with some of the aims of the Geonpi activists.]
So, despite the obstacles, now may be an ideal time to launch a smart, focused online travel site in France.
Sean O’Neill had roles as a reporter and editor-in-chief at Tnooz between July 2012 and January 2017.