Riding the Rails

FLIGHT DELAYS AND TARMACS DOUBLING AS PARKING LOTS WERE THE TOP COMPLAINTS OF MORE THAN 1,000 TRAVELERS, according to a recent survey by Opinion Research Corporation, meaning there's a good chance one of your client's trips has been affected by subpar ground control. While you unfortunately can't do much about the state of the skies, you can, where possible, offer an alternative: rail travel. One of Rail Europe's TGV high-speed trains, which travel at speeds up of to 186 mph

Airline woes being what they are, many agents are reporting that rail travel is becoming an increasingly popular choice for short-haul transportation in the U.S. and, especially, Europe. With no luggage to check or security that requires the removal of shoes, booking a ticket on Amtrak or the TGV in lieu of an airline is picking up steam.

In Europe, trains that travel at a speed of 150 mph or more run on 3,034 miles of track in 10 European countries, with another 1,711 miles slated for 2010, according to the Paris-based International Railway Association. Furthermore, Eurostar notes that in 2006, it dominated the air/rail market share on its Paris-Marseille, Madrid-Seville and Paris-Brussels routes.

"Our sales are at their highest level ever," says Frederic Langlois, president and CEO of Rail Europe, the North American representation for more than 35 European rail lines like Eurostar and TGV. "Specifically, sales of tickets on the high-speed and special trains we call 'premier trains' are the ones experiencing the highest growth."


The State of Rail Travel in the U.S.

In the U.S., however, the numbers—and the tracks—aren't chugging along quite as well. Passenger numbers are up 12 percent between 2002 and 2006, but it doesn't appear likely that Amtrak will receive its requested $1.53 billion in funding from Congress—almost twice the amount the government is willing to provide.

"If we had more trains and the trains were faster, people would ride [Amtrak] more; plus, trains are much more economical in terms of fuel," says Sylvia Blishak, who, along with her husband Ted, runs Accent on Travel USA, an Oregon-based agency specializing in rail travel in the U.S.

Book Rail Travel, Earn Commision

Even so, the Blishaks found the prospect of rail travel profitable enough to build a business on. And though rail travel tends to be cheaper than air travel, in the long run, it can prove more profitable, since products are commissionable.

Rail Europe pays a starting commission of 5 percent, while Amtrak pays an 8 percent commission on all leisure long-distance trains.

"The great thing about rail is that people love the experience, so they go back for more on a later trip," says Rail Europe's Langlois. "Selling rail creates satisfied clients and that's always good for the bottom line." He adds that in Europe, agents can sell such add-on products as the Paris Visite card and Paris Museum Pass. "We have dozens of these city cards," Langlois says. "Although these are not commissionable, these products are a great convenience and they let the agent look like a truly full-service travel advisor."

It may also make for a happier and more relaxed client on vacation. "Flying tends to be cheaper, but once people know some of the places they can see they get really excited," says Genevieve Gaulin, a sales agent with Fresh Tracks (www.freshtracks.ca), a company that specializes in Canadian rail travel (with a little Alaska thrown in). "Taking a train is more scenic and makes getting there more a part of the trip, rather than something to get through."

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