July 13, 2024

Breaking down barriers

When it comes to corporate travel, is the rail industry sending the right signals? April Waterston investigates

Pre-Covid, logging onto my local train line’s delay repay portal had become as much a part of my monthly finance schedule as paying the mortgage. My personal experience with rail travel was tainted by frustration, expense and anxiety about unreliability and, in those early months of 2020, risk. 

However, still I seldom considered another travel option for both my daily commute and domestic travel within the UK. 

The environmentalist within me couldn’t justify the carbon emissions from driving and, with the chance I could nab a table seat for my laptop, there were hours of uninterrupted productivity to be gained.

It seems that corporate travellers and travel buyers share many of my concerns. 

“For corporates with high levels of domestic travel, the key blockers at the moment to choosing rail over air or car are primarily cost, reliability of services, speed and value,” says Scott Davies, CEO, ITM. 

“Buyers are looking for a positive overall experience for their travellers when it comes to onboard rail product and a regular, reliable timetable.”

Davies believes the challenge is finding the right balance between pricing and employee productivity. “Travellers want to be able to work effectively on the train, so seating space and reliable and fast WiFi are essential, along with timetables that mean they don’t have to wait for long periods between services on key routes. 

“However, the cost of peak time rail tickets and reliability of services just does not provide sufficient value when compared with alternative air travel or going by car,” he adds.

Clive Wratten, CEO for the Business Travel Association, agrees price is the sticking point.

“The key issues for domestic corporate rail travel involve the product offered and the price paid for it. Alternatives such as car hire are currently more attractive due to price, safety and convenience. 

“The rail industry needs to evolve with a strong offering at a sensible price point to entice business travellers back post-Covid. 

“In doing this, station facilities must be upgraded, with ticketing services advanced to improve the ease of journey and reposition rail as the primary choice of corporate domestic transport.”

Easy access

The existing infrastructure is not the only barrier for corporate travel. 

Raj Sachdave, Managing Partner at Black Box Partnerships, thinks it’s important to consider what other service providers – like car rental companies, for example – are doing to entice and retain market share. 

“When we look at some of the barriers in terms of services technology and content distribution, TMCs have done a pretty good job of integrating rail into online booking tools and their core service provision. 

“However, sometimes not having access to all products and the full set of data from the industry challenges the delivery of a good customer experience. There are a couple of blind spots for the rail industry that have to be addressed. It needs to work with TMCs more closely to ultimately grow market share and and to keep customers happy.”

Green credentials

Despite these areas for improvement, rail still has a clear advantage when you throw the issue of sustainability into the mix.

Meeting carbon reduction targets means some of ITM’s buyer members are now encouraging rail travel over air for certain domestic routes, according to ITM’s Davies.

“Sustainability will be the driving factor and rail will be front and centre in corporate travel policies,” he says. 

“The move to green car rental fleets will present short- to medium-term challenges due to insufficient electric vehicles and charging points – this will potentially push business travellers towards train travel options instead.

“The mass use of sustainable aviation fuel is still a way off, meaning rail will be a more attractive sustainable option short term.” 

“Sustainability will be the driving factor and rail will be be front and centre in corporate travel policies”

Research from Trainline Partner Solutions (TPS) shows the vast majority of business travellers (75%) want to reduce their reliance on air travel for business because of the impact it has on the environment. To this end, communicating the environmental benefits of rail travel is key. 

LNER commissioned OnePoll to conduct independent research and analysis to uncover perceptions about rail, aviation and car travel, and whether or not they reflect the reality. The gap between perception and reality was, surprisingly, widest when comparing the carbon emissions of rail with other ways to travel.

According to LNER, a passenger journey on an Azuma train emits 97% fewer emissions than a journey of the same length on a typical aircraft used on domestic routes, yet less than 10% of those travellers surveyed were able to identify the extent to which this was the case.

David Horne, LNER Managing Director, said: “We’re confident that if we continue to promote rail as a productive, fast and sustainable mode of travel we will see more business customers choose our services.

“Recent research has shown that the productive time enjoyed by customers on our services is estimated to be worth £610 million to the UK economy every year.”

Finding solutions 

One company aiming to make it easier for corporates to book rail travel – and be more aware of its sustainable credentials – is Egencia. In recognition of the growing demand for sustainable travel choices, Egencia ramped up investment in its rail product in 2021. 

“There are a couple of blind spots for the rail industry that need to be addressed. It needs to work with TMCs more closely to ultimately grow market share and to keep customers happy”

Recent and upcoming features include more rail alternatives to air travel on its air versus rail display, which provides travellers and travel arrangers with the ability to compare and select rail alternatives for the same air route to reduce the impact of business travel carbon emissions.

John Sturino, the company’s VP Product & Technology, says: “Many businesses across the world, both big and small, are continuing to set higher and more aggressive targets for sustainability. In response, we are designing innovative self-service solutions that empower our customers to reduce carbon emissions by offering alternative transport options – allowing them to save time and money while making conscious decisions on how they travel in the future.”

Safety first

In the Covid era, traveller safety remains paramount and rail travel may be safer than we expect. 

American Express Global Business Travel and Black Box Partnership’s 2020 Let’s Go By Train white paper quotes evidence from the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) that estimates the risk of contracting coronavirus on a train as less than 0.01% – or 1 in 11,000 journeys. This level of risk halves if passengers practice social distancing and wear face masks – which of course is less frequently the case now that rules in the UK have been relaxed and passenger numbers are increasing.

TransPennine Express (TPE) continues to build on its ‘reassurance campaign’, including enhanced cleaning, encouraging the wearing of face coverings in England and promoting digital channels. 

It also continues to support the ‘Book with Confidence’ industry initiative, offering flexibility around advance tickets with fee-free changes if customers need to amend their bookings due to their travel plans changing.

Susie Palmer, Business Account Manager at TPE, outlines how the train line is working with the business travel community to identify how it can support and encourage rail travel. 

“Collectively as an industry, through the Rail Delivery Group, we are reviewing how we can adapt to the current customer demands through improved customer experience, products and further developing our digital proposition. 

“Collaboratively with some of the other train operating companies, to drive the recovery strategy, we will be sponsoring a rail zone area at the upcoming ITM conference to support corporates with discussions around developing their sustainable travel programmes.

“In early spring this year, we will be launching a new groups proposition, offering a dedicated groups function to support the growing demand in this sector. 

“In addition, we have noticed a trend with the SME market being more agile and starting to travel more, so later this year we will be developing a solution to support this client base.”

Changing track

South Western Railway (SWR) is also supporting business travellers through its corporate anytime fare and has introduced its Business Direct booking tool for SMEs offering discounted travel on the SWR network and allowing greater flexibility.

“Business Direct users can also map their CO2 footprint and compare it against the same journey if they had taken a plane or diesel or petrol vehicle,” explains Joe Thurgood, SWR Sales Manager. 

“We are making ongoing adjustments to our timetable to make it more attractive, and ongoing cleaning and sanitisation onboard are in place to help passengers feel safer.”

“Buyers are looking for a positive overall experience for their travellers, in terms of onboard rail product and a regular, reliable timetable”

Great Western Railway (GWR) is “keen to welcome our business customers back and help them arrive ready for those all-important face to face meetings,” says Phil Delany, Commercial Director. 

The train operator has introduced a flexi- season ticket to help commuters who have changed their working patterns since the pandemic. It has also improved its SME B2B product for direct bookings and has upgraded its First Class lounge. 

“From a marketing perspective, we are running B2B campaigns to remind people of the advantages of train travel – for example, arriving ready for those key meetings by being able to work and prepare on one of our high-speed trains,” adds Delany. 

“We will continue to work with industry associations and our TMC partners to promote GWR to the corporate market.”

Grand Central has launched its Real-Time Journey Dashboard application, provided by Whoosh. Users access the app via a QR code and benefit from real-time updates directly to their personal device. 

This can include live train running information, station departure boards, refreshments delivered straight to your seat, goodwill gestures for service disruption, and onward travel departure details. Real-Time Journey Dashboard also trialled on Network Rail from early January 2022. 

Finally, Avanti is boosting its offering to draw passengers back onboard. Roger Williams, Chairman of the International Rail Catering Group, explains: “Like all travel operators around the world, Avanti’s customer base shrunk dramatically during the last two years, but that hasn’t dampened its enthusiasm for bringing forward fresh onboard concepts.

“The new Standard Premium class, for example, offers roomier seats, a guaranteed tabletop giving useful work or leisure space, free Wi-Fi with access to Avanti media and an At-seat App to allow passengers to order café bar food and refreshments from the comfort of their seat.

“These enhancements have coincided with a recent uplift in passenger confidence in train travel, especially amongst discerning leisure customers – a signal perhaps of a new dawn in passenger growth.”