Great Rail Journeys (GRJ) is firmly on track for further expansion, following its purchase for an undisclosed sum of Chicago-based Vacations By Rail (VBR).

Peter Liney, chief executive of York-based Great Rail Journeys (GRJ), said: “It takes us way down the line for our presence in the US.

“About 90% of what they do is in Canada and the US and it’s a great platform for us internationally.

“They have a great group of staff and they know all about rail.”

The acquisition has been on the cards since July 2018 when GRJ was acquired by UK-based private equity firm Duke Street.

“They wanted us to do two things – to expand in the US and be more ambitious with that; and expand in the rail-river cruise market.

“Our first year [of rail-river cruises] has done well and next year is selling well.”

He said river cruises with a rail element were successful because they are different to many of the ‘look-alike’ products on the market.

“The river ships are high-calibre, offering a five-star experience, and the feedback is phenomenal,” he said.

“The 2019 rail-river cruises were sold out before Christmas and we have expanded our range for 2020.”

Another factor is the growing number of clients who don’t want to fly – which is helping boost the rail holiday sector generally, as more eco-conscious consumers opt for climate-friendly options.

“Overall, the market is in a sweet spot, especially with the conversation about the environment,” said Liney.

“We have seen lots of coverage on TV shows too, such as Michael Portillo’s railway journeys. We also sponsored ITV’s travel documentaries.

“Trains are a genuine alternative to coaches, as they take you right into the city centre; you don’t get stuck in traffic jams; you can move about on the train; and across Europe, India, China and Japan there are amazing rail networks with clean, fast trains.”

The acquisition of VBR will also help GRJ to cater for more independent rail holidaymakers, which tend to be younger.

Furthermore, GRJ is developing small group tours, which appeal to families, where the younger generation often question the need to fly.

The operator has eased the journey for older travellers on escorted tours with a new door-to-door luggage service on 2020 European holidays, so clients don’t have to lug heavy suitcases onto trains.

The expansion of the product range following VBR’s acquisition will be a further boost for travel agents, added Liney.

“It gives agents a different story to tell,” he said.

“We have a great sales team under Lindsay Dixon [head of trade sales].

“Agents know there is no race to the bottom with pricing for us and that gives them security that they are not going to be undercut.”

GRJ is also a member of the Association of Touring and Adventure Suppliers (Atas) which gives it another channel to build relationships with agents who sell tours.

Looking down the line, only dark cloud appears to be Brexit on October 31, which could mean a bumpy ride for operators, said Liney.

“September and October will be a test of consumer confidence,” he said.

“But we will highlight how we are price-protected and there will be no surcharges – if you buy now, the price won’t change.

“Our holidays are very inclusive so any exposure to currency changes is minimised.”

Pictured: Durango & Silverton narrow gauge railway in Colorado, US.

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