Kunal Kothari at 36, is amazingly young for an executive director. Kunal heads the India operations of Rail Europe a company that sells European railway passes and tickets in over 30 countries around the world. It comes easily to him because, as he tells me, he’s been doing the same thing in different job profiles since 1999 — including sellng European railway products when he was in Dubai for a nine-year job stint.
“I’ve been with Rail Europe for the last two years and it arises out of my personal love for rail travel,” he affirms gently. Rail Europe itself has been around 18 years in India and 75 years globally. The company was originally set-up in the late 1930s to provide US travellers with easy access to railway travel in Europe.
Since then it has expanded worldwide to provide European railway access to countries around the globe, including India where it is part of a larger consortium called ‘Rail Europe 4A’ that includes all countries other than those in the continents of North America and Europe.
With Indians increasingly opting for global travel and several of them choosing to view the scenic European countryside through a train window rather than an airplane, Kunal smiles when he says that the favourite rail travel destination for Indians in Europe is Switzerland.
“The most popular choice has always been Switzerland for Indians travelling by train, though Yash Chopra films did add tremendously to the general excitement about the country. More so in recent years, with the addition of high-speed trains which are now becoming the hallmark of European travel. These trains can do upto 300 kmph on a railway track and most European countries have already got them, or are in the process of getting them. So, you can imagine they are very popular with the here-and-now generation.”
Kunal finds that rail travel in Europe is extremely convenient for commuters, partly because the rail stations are usually city-centric. “On the other hand to catch a flight from a European city, one usually has to go to the outskirts because most European airports are situated there. Besides the commute time involved in this, you have to factor in check-in times. So for passengers who want to save on all this, train travel makes more sense.”
The executive director points out that buying a ticket on a European Panorama train can be an extremely pleasant visual treat. Many of the trains, (such as the Bernina Express in Switzerland) are glass-topped and one can see into the vast expanses of the outdoors without any obstructions.
Also, they are made to travel to extremely scenic places, some of them starting at 1,200 feet and moving upwards into the mountainous regions of 8,600 feet before coming back onto the plains. Kunal indicates that with leisure and lifestyle travel on the increase, Indians are now choosing to travel singly, rather than the groups they were regularly seen with even 10 years ago.
“Many Indians choose to visit European spots they find fascinating, a second or third time, at a more leisurely pace because they can now afford to,” he says. Also, he says, with India opening up to World Cusines, Indians are now finding European food more familiar and palatable, since most of the cuisine choices are already available in India now. With Rail Europe offering Select passes that provide a rail bouquet of three, four or five European countries on a single pass, travellers can now choose to travel between countries as well and still remain thrifty too, he says.
“Our job is to provide customers the maximum options in rail travel in European countries be they on the Eurail or on privately owned railway networks since we have acccess to most of them. With internet pre-booking through Euronet, clients can choose beforehand the trains that they want to travel on via Rail Europe, he says. They can also choose between Select passes and Global passes the latter which offer widespread access across the European rail network,” says Kunal.
Incidentally, Rail Europe now sells rail tickets not just to European countries but to other destinations such as trains within the US, Australia, Canada and Japan as well. “While European rail travel forms over 90 per cent of our revenue source, these recently added business are also doing well,” he tells me happily.
“Dealing in rail travel is something that just happened to me,” says Kunal. Yet, the way the industry is now developing in Europe and around the world this may just be an industry whose best times lie ahead of it.