New pan-European rail booking service launched
Train travellers can for the first time book tickets from Britain to France, Germany and other European destinations in a single transaction.
Start-up firm Loco2.com is offering the service in an attempt to make cross-border European rail trips cheaper and easier to organise.
Loco2 said it wanted to provide a service for trains that was as simple as flights on budget airlines.
It also wants to promote rail travel as a green alternative to flying.
"Until now, rail users have had to go to different websites to book different parts of their journey," says Jamie Andrews, co-founder and managing director of Loco2.
"What we've done is make it possible to book the whole journey in one go on one website in one transaction."
A long journey
It has taken several steps to get to this point.
The first was gaining access to the booking and timetabling systems of the French national rail operator, SNCF, followed by those of the German network, Deutsche Bahn.
The latest development has involved integrating data from these systems with information from the Association of Train Operating Companies in Britain, which means it can offer seamless ticketing on continental journeys that start or end at any station in the UK, starting from 12 November.
It claims to be the only booking service with this UK dimension in place.
At least one competitor, French company Capitaine Train, offers one-stop bookings across the French and German networks.
Loco2 provides a less complete ticketing service for destinations in Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands and a number of other countries.
By reducing the complexity and hassle of international train bookings, the idea is to encourage people to take the train, not the plane.
It is not simply about making money from ticket sales.
The name Loco2 stands for low CO2, and it wants to promote rail travel as a green alternative.
Trains generate fewer carbon emissions than aircraft.
But the path to simple cross-border ticketing has been strewn with bureaucratic and technical obstacles.
Each European country has its own rail system, with jealously guarded arrangements for timetabling and booking trains.
The biggest problem Loco2 has faced is persuading the national rail networks to open up their systems to outsiders.
"Largely speaking, European rail operators have been reluctant to see change in the market and they were fairly happy with the status quo, even though customers were incredibly frustrated," says Mr Andrews.
"It has taken efforts by the European Commission to begin regulating to open up the market to give companies like us the opportunity to push things forward."
There have also been technical difficulties to overcome in hooking up the computer systems of the different national networks.
"We employ two sorts of geek: trainspotters and software nerds," explains Mr Andrews,
"Combined, we like to think they form a formidable force."