Sam Sherwood-Hale spoke to Amy Wei, Head of TrainPAL, about the Chinese company’s move to Europe and the culture of train booking in Europe and Asia…

Launched in February 2018, TrainPal is the first app to offer split ticketing for train journeys around the United Kingdom with no booking fees. Building on this success, they have now added Italian trains operated by Trenitalia and Italo, and DB Trains in Germany. TrainPal is powered by, the world’s second largest online travel agency, and has a dedicated team focusing on continuously improving its smart engine and algorithms to offer the best possible travel solutions to all train travellers. TrainPal also offers 24/7 customer service to support customers before, during, and after their travel.

I sat down with Amy in London whilst she was there to meet with UK train operating companies and local customers.

TrainPAL is coming up on its second birthday, how has the journey gone so far? 

If we start with our parent company, we are less well known in Europe compared to Asia, but is the second largest online booking agency and in China we are the largest. Last year we generated US$4.5 billion and regarding monthly active users and our other brands have 200 million users, 80 per cent of these were on mobile, in China mobile is so dominant. So, after we achieved that in our home country we wanted to expand.

Nearby countries like Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Australia, have a large market for Chinese users and we now offer our service in 19 different languages and over 20 different currencies.

TrainPAL was launched by my team last year and our most popular function is train booking, but we are looking to turn our mobile app into a global booking gateway for all these different transportation methods across all our markets.

Last year my team did some research to find out if potential customers would be interested in booking train tickets through a multi-transport booking platform and what are found is that whereas people might book two or three flights per year, the average train passenger might book a ticket ten times as often. So, ease of use and speedy selection and payment options are all important. AliPay and WeChat pay are dominant right now in China and we have already integrated those into our platform.

How does your split ticketing system work? 

More than 50 per cent of our bookings are able to be split, especially on cross country trips. Like Glasgow to Nottingham, if we pick a peak hour trip during the morning the backend of our platform will calculate if there is a split ticketing option available and then we can see the recommendation, the journey could be broken into two legs for Glasgow to Manchester and then Manchester to Nottingham, sometimes it is a dramatic saving. But, understanding the UK market, with all the different fares, is extremely difficult as it is so different.

Do you see trends with the certain types of split ticketing that customers opt for?

We are looking at ways to pull in more data to provide better options for customers, we do see some examples where people care more about the cheaper ticket than arriving at a certain time. Mobile technology and adoption are quite advanced in China so that is something that we are trying to build on and bring to more customers globally as a way to offer something extra through product innovation.

In the UK the average heavy split ticket user user made 89 bookings (two split ticket orders counted as one order) in 216 days (21st December 2018 – 25th July 2019) and saved £2,207.15 in total. So that frequency is 2.43 days per order and an average saving of £24.80 per order. The biggest saving user was an Android user who made a total saving of £2,374.65 by splitting tickets (27th August 2018 – 25th July 2019). The total number of orders was 45 with a fixed route: Bristol Temple Meads to Birmingham. This user placed an order almost every weekend and saved £52.77 per order.

What kind of research do you on each market before deciding to enter?

Population wise, every country is smaller than China, but that is not the main difference. We can obtain decades of traffic data on how entire countries travel on the railways as European countries are train centric and all of the top ten countries in terms of train traffic have hundreds of millions of passengers every year.

Until 2017, the number of people travelling on trains in China was lower than Germany, it is just under three billion for both countries. The difference is that the average length of a train journey in China is 470 kilometres whereas in Germany or the UK it is around 80 kilometres, there is more focus on commuting there. China is more about middle- or long-distance travel between major urban hubs.

Do you anticipate that shift towards commuting in China?

I think so, it is a universal part of urbanisation right, the city centre becomes more expensive and people will move to the suburbs and outskirts, so the connecting network needs to be strong. Tokyo has so many satellite towns and they all have expansive metro line connections to the city.

What else have you found from comparing the data from different countries?

It is interesting to look at the different statistics to see why people use trains. Using 2018 data, the daily number of train users in the United Kingdom is seven per cent of the population, if we apply that number to China, it would mean one hundred million people travelling by train every day but that is not the case, it is actually closer to eight million.

So, the frequency is totally different in different countries, that data comes back to help us make our platform as useful as possible for potential customers. Certain countries require booking on-the-go at a much greater rate, but in the UK people still use desktop computers a lot, so even though the market would seem to require on-the-go booking the actual mechanism that the population uses doesn’t support that. Whereas in China people are taking much longer journeys that you might think they would book in advance, but actually their habit is to book on-the-go with a mobile.

In South Korea we found that they are fond of making calls to a call centre, in the UK most people register their comments via email. We try to push notifications to our customers depending on the different culture in each country regarding compensation or likelihood for delays. In our roadmap for the future we are looking at WhatsApp as a system for alerting travelers.

We have call centres in Seoul and Tokyo and we are accessing where to put our next call centre, Thailand or The Philippines.

Do you have any interest in working with regulators? 

Currently we are working with the Rail Delivery Group, but the first place we start when it comes to developing new products is by looking at our customers’ needs and getting the feedback from them. As I am here in London, I will be spending time with LNER (London North Eastern Railway) at the ticket office and gate to see what kinds of issues they face. They have told me about Chinese customers wanting to come and pay with AliPay or WeChat pay, from these experiences we’ve developed a little update where the barcode brightens up the screen when it is about to be placed on the ticket reader. Again, this is a development from this ‘mobile first’ attitude.

What is your opinion regarding nationalisation vs privatisation?

Franchising like in the UK seems to add more complexity, from our perspective managing fares, when one franchise ends the fares are still three in the system and then the new operator comes in and promotes their new fares, so it can create some conflict with our system.