March 1, 2024

Back on board

It’s time to tell your travellers to ditch their cars and take the train again, says Joe Thurgood, Sales Manager at South Western Railway

Life has changed since the pandemic, that’s for sure. We’ve all watched everything on Netflix, going out for dinner now means ordering from your phone on the sofa, and you’re never too far away from someone with a weird conspiracy theory to share.

Oh, and travel managers have taken their eye off the ball.

Given my job, I’m talking specifically about rail here. With Covid restrictions lifted and work life slowly getting back to normal, it seems to me that many businesses have let enforcement of travel policy slide. Hopping on the train for meetings, whether it was for new business or just pressing the flesh with existing clients, used to be standard practice. Today – not so much.

Of course, you can understand the shift in attitudes. Travelling by car was encouraged when it meant keeping employees safe from Covid infection, but now there is no reason to still be on the motorways.

“Going to meetings by rail offers a host of lifestyle benefits as well as being green”

In the new world order, the perceived wisdom is that staff should get behind the wheel for domestic trips despite the fact that, from a duty of care perspective, driving is possibly the most dangerous thing you can do while at work.

Corporates and SMEs have fallen into a trap – namely, that a shift in social attitudes mean workers won’t tolerate being told what to do and love their new freedoms. Driving to a meeting is great if it finishes early too, since it means knocking off and going home, thinks the staff member, forgetting that they will then be working into the evening to collate their notes from the day or do the tasks they’ve missed while in the car.

I’ve wondered whether businesses have actually realised what a shift away from rail travel is costing them? Going to meetings by rail offers a host of lifestyle benefits as well as being green – doing last-minute prep, keeping on top of emails or even sitting back to relax to arrive stress-free in best form. All of these mean the employer is getting the benefit of their employee’s time. The same can’t be said for two hours in a traffic jam on the A3.

Part of the issue can be put down to a loss of staff in travel departments. As teams have shrunk because of the pandemic, relationship managers are putting their efforts into the biggest areas of spend, such as air and hotels. Train travel is easy to overlook, since it is an element of the mix often seen to take care of itself.

Train companies aren’t blameless in all this. We’ve been very good at talking up how important the rail network is to the leisure sector and have put significant marketing funds (backed by warm words from the Government) into this. Business travel has been a little bit forgotten.

“Train travel is easy to overlook, since it is an element of the mix often seen to take care of itself”

I know there are many reasons that companies complain about rail – WiFi service, reporting when it come to sustainability policy, fare restrictions and booking tool integration all spring to mind. But get a good TMC on the case and all of these disappear. 

As a more relaxed approached to client relations takes hold, the fear is that face-to-face meetings could even become a thing of the past. I recently spoke to one SME that had switched to Zoom calls for all new business interactions. The result? Not one contract win.

Life might have changed with the pandemic, but train travel is still as brilliant as it ever was. It’s time to rekindle that relationship.

Joe Thurgood is Sales Manager at South Western Railway, the operator of trains from London Waterloo to south west London, Surrey, Dorset and Hampshire, plus regional services in Somerset, Berkshire and Wiltshire