Rail companies and airlines compete. But they also can complement each other.
That is a concept that VIA Rail Canada has taken to heart. Working with airlines to create relationships much like the carriers’ code-sharing agreements is an integral part of VIA Rail’s intermodal strategy.
Mohamed Bhanji, director of marketing technologies for the rail company, would like to take it a step further: He envisions a network of partnerships similar to that of the Star Alliance.
VIA Rail is on the verge of completing an agreement with one airline and is well into talks with another, according to Bhanji.
The deals will be announced when the ink is dry, he said, but the major commercial issues have all been worked out.
Neither airline is North American. VIA Rail has found it easier to work with international carriers, Bhanji said, because Canada’s homegrown airlines still view rail as competition.
But, he said, it’s just a matter of time. Once VIA Rail succeeds with its initial partnerships, the Canadian carriers will almost certainly want to participate, spurred in part by corporations seeking to reduce their travel-related carbon footprints.
Bhanji noted that airlines in Europe are already connecting with train services – Air France with SNCF and Luft-hansa with Deutsche Bahn.
VIA Rail’s strategy includes other modes of transportation as well.
It just announced agreements with GO Transit, the interregional public transit system that links Toronto with the surrounding regions of Halton, Peel, York and Durham, and with Pacific Western Transportation Ltd./Airport Express, a privately owned bus company that serves Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.
Both deals enable passengers to search for and price a door-to-door trip and to book and pay for the intermodal components in a single transaction on VIA Rail’s website.
It is not uncommon for residents of Ottawa, for example, to take the train to Toronto to catch a flight at Pearson, Bhanji said.
And VIA Rail is not just a way of getting from Point A to Point B: Several of its routes, such as journeys through the Maritime provinces and the Rocky Mountains, are vacation “destinations” themselves.
Now that the Toronto connections are under way, VIA Rail is working on similar arrangements with ground transportation providers in the Montreal area..
“We want to get it done this year,” Bhanji said. “We’ll use the same model.”
Also on Bhanji’s radar are ways to use technology to ease connections for cruise passengers traveling by rail to the port cities of Vancouver and Quebec City.
Some modes of transportation, particularly those designed for commuters, aren’t capable of handling large amounts of luggage, he noted, and cruise passengers aren’t known for packing light.
VIA Rail asks customers to check a box if their trip involves a cruise or motorcoach, how many bags they plan to carry and how much time they are building in to make their transfer.
The information is printed on the manifest so train personnel are better prepared to handle the situation.
“In the future, if there are 10 or 15 people with 40 bags, we might think of some type of service to pick up and store the bags at the cruise port or airport,” Bhanji said.
“The whole idea to facilitate the customer’s journey.”