March 3, 2024

Just the ticket

Rail travel might fit the bill when it comes to sustainability, but there are still sizeable barriers to overcome, says Dave Richardson

Despite the chaos that has afflicted Britain’s railways since strikes began in June last year, the Buyer Priorities Survey by the ITM indicates that 44% of corporate travel buyers expect a significant modal shift from air to rail in 2023. 

Although travel to and around Europe may be included, that still indicates a willingness to switch to rail on routes where rail competes – especially from London, the Midlands and North West to Scotland. 

But whether or not the strikes continue – as seemed likely at the time of writing – there are still other significant barriers to modal shift, whether from air or car travel. Ticketing can be confusing, especially for occasional users and some SMEs, and e-ticketing is far from universal. 

The UK Government plans to move forward with the creation of a new organisation, called Great British Railways (GBR), this year but there are doubts over how much this will benefit the corporate sector and the speed of change. 

ITM’s CEO Scott Davies says a switch to rail would be driven by sustainability objectives, but adds: “However, 40% of respondents felt that their online booking tool is not ready to support delivery against their top priorities, including seamless air and rail policy inclusion, and integrated air/rail display. 

“Buyers need good quality rail content integrated into online tools, particularly for EMEA, and also rail content that’s agnostic. 

“Buyers also need clear visibility of emissions and true integration within an online booking tool rather than punch-outs to another rail booking tool.” 

“The key to driving confidence – and to encouraging modal shift – is to make it easier for the business traveller to choose and buy rail”

One of the key proposals of GBR, first announced two years ago but not yet operational, is to oversee a simplification of fares and wider introduction of digital technology, such as smartcard and e-ticketing. 

The Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which represents train operators and with a transition team managing the switch to GBR, welcomes the proposals set out by the Government, including the wider roll-out of single sector pricing. Flexible single fares would cost no more than half the return fare for the journey, which is not the case at present. 

“This will give customers control over the journeys that they pay for – no more guessing whether to buy a return or two singles,” says a spokesperson.  “Customers would be able to mix and match their requirements from basic single fares and get the best price. This will help to unlock further benefits, such as the ability to tap in and tap out on more journeys.” 

RDG Chief Executive, Jacqueline Starr, adds: “We have initiated the Green Travel Pledge, which will establish a standard for UK rail emissions reporting. By measuring rail over air, we are confident that the Green Travel Pledge will enable businesses to make better informed decisions.” 

Flexible fares

There are an estimated 55 million fares available across Britain’s railway network, but business travellers using online systems have been able to choose mix-and-match single sector fares for many years – a fixed time discounted fare in one direction, for example, and a flexible fare for the return trip. 

“Put bluntly, there are too many fare options, most unnecessary, that compete with one another to increase revenue on that particular route”

Andrew Cantrell, Managing Director of Evolvi Rail Systems, says: “The extension of the single sector pricing trial on LNER will remove a few anomalies, however, the overall impact is debatable. If it is widened to cover all operators it may provide further opportunities to simplify the customer experience, by standardising fare types and removing the plethora of restrictions. 

“There is a growing proportion of e-tickets compared to other fulfilment channels but this could be improved by RDG allowing TMCs to provide some of the same after-sales services to their customers for e-tickets that are in place for Ticket on Departure, and catering for cross-London travel. The further expansion of smartcards and pay-as-you-go (PAYG) provides some challenges to retailers who are excluded from these, and a level playing field needs to be in place.” 

Raj Sachdave, Managing Partner of consultancy Black Box Partnerships, also cautiously welcomes the GBR proposals, adding: “The expansion of PAYG can only be a success if passengers have trust and transparency in fares and pricing first, so targeting this seems like the most logical step. 

“Put bluntly, there are too many fare options, most unnecessary, that compete with one another to increase revenue on that particular route. It’s good news that more operators are switching to e-ticketing as a default option. The emergence of smartcard and s-tickets is the next evolution, similar to Oystercard, but confidence in fare structures and pricing needs to keep pace. 

“There’s a great opportunity to consolidate multiple ways of doing the same thing into one industry-wide initiative. A good example would be a central service for Delay Repay, as why do we have 19 different options to ask for the same type of compensation?” 

Industry collaboration 

TMCs are joining the debate. Jason Geall, Executive Vice-President SME of American Express GBT, says: “We convened the Rail for Business forum to bring businesses together with UK rail to collaborate on customer experience improvements. 

“We have already identified fare simplification and greater use of digital technology as key priorities, and now we’re setting up working groups to drive improvements in data, Delay Repay, and central services that can deliver a better customer experience.” 

He adds that Amex GBT supports the RDG’s Green Travel Pledge, and that it is enhancing its Neo travel and expenses tool to show air-rail comparisons across Europe and North America. 

“The key to driving confidence – and to encouraging modal shift – is to make it easier for the business traveller to choose and buy rail,” says Geall. 

“Customers would be able to mix and match their requirements from basic single fares and get the best price”

Behind the scenes developments do seem to be moving in the right direction, but the BTA is worried about how long improvements will take, bearing in mind that confidence in rail travel has been shattered by months of strikes, cancellations and uncertainty. 

Commercial Director Andrew Clarke, who frequently takes Manchester-London trains, says: “Rail transactions are still considerably down on pre-pandemic levels, and modal shift is held back due to a lack of confidence. Cost is also driving this, and we need to get rid of things like restrictions on fare availability at peak times. E-ticketing is still only 27% and is very uneven between train operators. 

“Rail has sustainability in its favour, and there is now more awareness of high-speed travel in Europe, especially when companies have headquarters there. It will be interesting to see how integration of the Thalys network under the Eurostar brand pans out. 

“Plans for GBR show there’s a willingness to change, but the speed of delivery is a concern. If the rail industry doesn’t get its act together soon, it will lose a raft of rail customers, probably forever.”