Rail Europe recently unveiled a complete redesign of its website, which I reviewed earlier this week. 

I’ve been speaking to Stuart Alldis, head of e-commerce at Rail Europe, about the new design, how the volcanic ash crisis provided a stern test for the new site, and the challenges of making a relatively complex process simple for the user. 

Can you tell me about Rail Europe?

We’re a subsidiary of French rail firm SNCF, and our mission is to sell French and European rail travel to the UK market. We’re here to promote the services of Eurostar, TGV and others. 

Rail Europe operates through four main channels; a website, call centre, a shop in London’s Regent Street, and through travel agents. 

The number one customer channel is the website though, which attracts between 400,000 and 500,000 monthly unique visitors, and this traffic has grown steadily over the last three years. 

Why did you redesign the site? When was it last upgraded? 

We last relaunched the site in April 2008, but this wasn’t so much about the front-end experience, but more because we had to integrate a new back end. 

With the new redesign (from Design UK), we wanted to improve the user experience and SEO to attract more organic traffic to Rail Europe. 

We also want to focus more on the content on the site and provide more information and ideas about destinations.

The biggest challenge in some ways is to show people how easy it is to book and travel by rail across Europe. For example, you can easily book a train between London and Barcelona via Paris, and we want to make people aware of their options when they visit the site.

We try to address this by providing more content on journeys and destinations, with plenty of integration with Google Maps. 

A lot of people that come to the website use it more functionally and head straight for the search and booking function, and this has been provided on every page. 

While some rail journeys can be complicated, and deal with a number of changes and different countries and rail operators, the website tries to simplify everything. My belief is that, if my 65 year old mum is able to use the website and book trains, then our visitors should find it easy to use. 

How did the recent volcanic ash issues affect the site? 

We had something like six times the normal traffic, so it turned into the biggest load test we have ever done. The normal bandwidth usage for the site is somewhere between 6mb and 10mb, but during the volcanic ash crisis it reached 90mb. 

The volcanic ash crisis meant increased traffic for us but `I think it has also has the effect of increasing peoples’ awareness of rail travel and the alternatives available to travelling buy air. 

From our perspective, it’s good that we had a new website in place with an improved user experience, and we hope to see some returning traffic as a result. 

What are the challenges of linking up journeys between multiple rail operators? 

There are a few problems outside of our control, such as the different booking ‘horizons’ offered by different operators. 

For example, while you can book 120 days in advance for Eurostar trains, you can only book 90 days ahead for TGV, and this figure is lower for other rail operators. 

So, you could book the first leg of a journey three or four months in advance, but you may be unable to book the last part of the journey. If users come across this on the website then we explain the problem and offer to alert them by email when the train they require is available. 

Is the rail industry across Europe a little bit behind the times when it comes to online? 

I would agree with that, and it is something that we are trying to change. 

The biggest problem is the number of different rail operators, countries, and the various rules and customs. For some rail operators, it isn’t possible to book trains on their websites. 

In future, there needs to be more agreement and cooperation between the various carriers to make it easier for customers. 

How have you been marketing the website? 

We currently use SEO, PPC and affiliate marketing, bit a big focus with the new website design is to make it more appealing to the search engines. In the past we have spent a lot on paid search, and still do, but we are looking to reduce the PPC spend and attract more organic traffic. 

We don’t have any direct rival in terms of rail travel across Europe, so we are looking to provide an alternative to airlines and compete with them for European travel related terms.

More people are looking to rail travel as an alternative to flights for European destinations, with to environmental concerns playing a big part in people’s decisions. Rail travel isn’t the cheapest, and rail operators can’t compete with the kind of prices offered by airlines like Ryanair, but it does offer a better experience for passengers. 

What are you future plans for the website? 

We’re never standing still. There are three areas we’ll be focusing on; improving and adding to the content available on the site, providing increased functionality for users, and becoming the leading website for European rail travel.