Exclusive: Agents need to act fast or risk losing all commission on sales of UK rail tickets from January when trade booking system Elgar is axed, according to rail retailer TheTrainline.

Commission on rail sales will fall in any case from 9% to 5% in the New Year. But the Elgar system which sits on global distribution systems and gives access to commissionable fares across the rail network will be closed by provider Eurostar on January 1.

Most leisure agents will simply stop selling rail travel, according to TheTrainline sales and distribution director Adrian Watts, and miss out on the increasingly booming sector.

But travel management companies (TMCs) will fare better, says Watts, because most have agreements with rail retailer TheTrainline or rival Evolvi.

Watts said all agents will require similar deals or an agreement with their GDS provider to access rail fares in future. Without an agreement they will have to buy tickets from another retailer or direct from a Train Operating Company and lose the remaining commission.

He said: “Agents need to decide forthwith what to do to carry on booking rail.” However, Watts questioned how many would bother. “Can agents make money at 5%, and will people go to a high-street agent who levies a fee?” he asked. “Smaller agents will simply move out of rail.”

Yet sales through agents totalled £220 million last year, with Watts reporting the volume of bookings had doubled in 12 months. He said: “The agency corporate market has grown substantially with a doubling of TMC rail business.
“It is a dramatically expanding market. This year will be the best for rail travel since 1946.”

At the same time, Watts warned it is inevitable rail travel will cost more even as agents are priced out.
The Government is cutting its annual subsidy to the rail industry from £4.5 billion to £3 billion a year and allowing companies to increase fares above the rate of inflation. “Travel will become more expensive,” said Watts.

An ABTA spokeswoman said agents have been aware of the switch for more than a year and that 95% either had alternative deals in place, or had made plans to sign such deals. “It is possible some a small number of smaller agents have not made up their minds on what they are going to do.”

ABTA had sent out a reminder of the change to its members via ABTA Today, she said.