The strongest brand in European train travel has reached the end of the line. The Rail Europe name is to be erased by Christmas – just as horizons for British train travellers are being expanded with a new Paris-Barcelona high-speed service.
The new identity for Rail Europe is a French internet domain, Voyages-sncf.com. The company says: “The new website will inspire and reassure customers, allowing them to plan and book their journeys with the confidence that the full experience will be straightforward and stress-free.”
But the change has prompted disbelief from proponents of wider rail travel in Europe. Christian Wolmar, the leading rail commentator, called it “absolutely daft”. He told The Independent: “Not only was Rail Europe a good brand, but also it gave the feel that you could book anywhere across the whole continent. Now it gives the impression that it is just a narrow French booking service. This time, it certainly is not vive la difference.”
The railways of France have had a presence in the UK for 120 years, most visibly in the travel centre at 193 Piccadilly in central London. Rail Europe was created in 1997 by French Railways (SNCF) in the wake of the privatisation of British Rail. SNCF bought BR’s International division, which was merged with its existing UK operations to offer a Europe-wide range of services.
Three years later, the parent company developed Voyages-sncf.com as its online sales channel within France – akin to TheTrainline.com in the UK. It is now to become the brand name for the Europe-wide operation, which sells travel to tens of thousands of destinations across the Continent.
Danny Rogers, the editor of Campaign, said: “There is a trend for companies to rebrand to more exotic names, when sometimes it's wiser to stick to a ‘it does what is says on the tin’ approach. One is also in danger of throwing away years of hard-earned equity with satisfied customers.”
But Amanda Monroe of Rail Europe said: “Although the company name is changing, the wide range of products available to UK customers remains the same and synergies will allow us to provide new exciting and improved services and enhanced offers. The UK website will introduce new tools such as a best-fare finder and door-to-door European journey planner.”
Branwell Johnson, deputy editor of Marketing Week, said: “It does seem rather short-sighted to dump a well-known brand that is easily searchable on the web and has built up brand equity for a corporate name such as Voyages-sncf.com.”
The long-awaited Paris-Barcelona high-speed train is due to start on 15 December. It will reduce the journey time to six-and-a-half hours, and provide an enticing alternative to flying for many British travellers as well as Parisians.