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Remember the old advertising slogan “Let the train take the strain”? How times have changed. When Clare Gilmartin, who was in the driving seat at ticket booking site Trainline (TRN) when the company floated midway through 2019, she had no way of knowing how events would pan out within just six months of the company’s initial public offering.

Ms Gilmartin who has since stepped down, was at the time at the helm of a unique company that was, by all accounts, going places. Little could she have known what was coming a little way down the track or just how uniquely exposed that company was to not only the immediate impact of the pandemic, but also the entirely unexpected potentially permanent shift in commuting patterns.

Analysts at house broker JPMorgan Cazenove must feel just as bewildered by the way things have turned out. But with UK train passenger numbers at 27% of the previous year’s back in December and just 14% in January so far, the strain on trainline’s bottom line is all too evident. The broker estimates that net ticket sales for Trainline’s year that ended in February will be a fifth of the 2020 total and Trainline is now predicted to remain lossmaking in 2022.
 

This time last year Trainline was still well on track. The biggest and most successful flotation of the previous 12 months, its share price had gone up more than 40% in six months, giving it a market capitalisation of nearly £2.5 billion. That gave it a valuation in excess of 45 times estimated earnings for 2020. Please remember past performance is not a reliable indicator of future returns.

And business was good too. While it was a stock market newcomer it was firmly established as a commuter staple, making planning journeys and buying rail and coach tickets through its journey planner website and app simple. The uptake of online sales was a winner with UK commuters and leisure travellers alike and it was heralded as a 21st century champion of e-commerce, with the prospect of international deregulation offering further future expansion opportunities up ahead.

That though, of course, all came to a screeching halt when the pandemic struck, lockdowns kept everyone at home and - one year later - have possibly changed the face of commuting for ever.

All of which leaves a big question as to where that leaves Trainline now? It is far from alone of course every single one of the train, bus and coach operators has had the same problems, with a sheer dearth of travellers of any description. 

The main criticism of Trainline used to be that it leeched off an industry that needed £4.3 billion in government subsidies the year before the pandemic struck. And it was its sheer size that was keeping it safe from real competition, when the fact was that its competitors could all just as easily draw on the same industry-funded open access databases. 

That’s probably not an issue today seeing as there isn’t a travel market to speak of right now. And that is glaringly obvious for Trainline too in light of the fact that the regulated UK market provided 93% of its revenue before the pandemic. 

Those bleak 2021 full-year results are due out on Thursday. Trainline saw its revenue fall 76% in the first six months of the year as ticket sales dropped due to the Covid-19 lockdown, according to its half-year results.

It posted a £31 million revenue in the first half, significantly down from £129 million in the same period in 2019. The company had adjusted earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) loss of £16 million, while its net debt rose to £166 million in the first half from £59 million in the same period in 2019.

Net ticket sales dropped by 81% to £358 million in the first half. However, the group said it was confident it could navigate an extended downturn from a second UK lockdown with liquidity headroom of £162 million and ability to scale back monthly cash outflows where necessary.

Trainline said while trading conditions remain challenging, it is well positioned to return to growth when the market recovers.

Time will tell when - or even if - that recovery comes in time to save Trainline.

More on Trainline PLC

Five year performance

(%) As at 28 March

2016-2017

2017-2018

2018-2019

2019-2020

2020-2021

Trainline PLC

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-

-

-

28.2

Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future returns

Source: Refinitiv total returns as at 28.3.21, with net income reinvested in local currency.

Important information: Reference to specific securities should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell these securities and is included for the purposes of illustration only. When you are thinking about investing in shares, it’s generally a good idea to consider holding them alongside other investments in a diversified portfolio of assets. Investors should note that the views expressed may no longer be current and may have already been acted upon. This information is not a personal recommendation for any particular investment. If you are unsure about the suitability of an investment you should speak to a Fidelity adviser or an authorised financial adviser of your choice.
 

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