Better productivity on the move and wider deployment of mobile ticketing are top of many business travellers’ lists of the improvements needed when travelling by rail.
But of course they also want to see train operators get the basics right – punctuality, and being able to get a seat whichever class they are travelling in. Here there is often a sharp divergence between inter-city operators, which generally provide a good service, and commuter operators whose over-congested trains are a daily grind at an ever increasing cost.
The huge amount of investment going into the rail network should enable more operators to get the basics right, with new franchise agreements usually building in commitments to new or revamped trains, better and free wifi, and more customer care.
But the huge corporations running Britain’s railways – many of them owned by foreign rail operators – can bid too much to run a franchise and get caught out. Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) (90% owned by Stagecoach) may have ceased to exist by the time you read this, amid political uproar that it has been allowed to walk away from its franchise early after sustaining heavy losses.
But it is the Department for Transport (DFT), via infrastructure operator Network Rail, which is in charge of major projects to improve our railways, and sometimes it also funds new trains as for Great Western and VTEC. The government is also investing in rail’s wifi connectivity, promising speeds of up to one gigabit per second by 2025.
The roll-out of mobile ticketing is happening slowly, with rail lagging far behind the airline industry. Virgin Trains West Coast, Greater Anglia, Crosscountry, Arriva Trains Wales, Transpennine Express and Chiltern Trains offer the best mobile ticketing covering both advance and flexible 'Anytime' tickets, with operators such as Great Western and East Midlands Trains lagging behind.
But Adrian Parkes, CEO of the GTMC, calls for patience. He says: “It is encouraging to see rail ticketing and booking service providers take proactive steps to deliver new functionality and offer TMCS wider options, such as enabling TMCS to process refunds on both e-tickets and mobile tickets. This is a significant step forwards and the trend towards greater flexibility of mobile and e-tickets is expected to continue.”
Trainline for Business is working to ensure mobile ticketing is rolled out across the country as quickly as possible, including a full range of ticket options. Currently mobile tickets are available on over 50% of routes but not for all ticket types, and it expects this to increase rapidly over the next 12 months.
Ken Cameron, Managing Director of Evolvi Rail Systems, says: “We know from talking to TMCS that frictionless travel is increasingly
Rail operators are investing in their product and improving the business experience but the industry’s progress is far from full steam ahead, writes Dave Richardson
an aspiration. The move to eticketing, stored automatically within a travel wallet and available without activation, moves us closer to the rail industry vision of industrywide mobile solutions by 2020.”
Gary Mcleod, Managing Director of Traveleads, feels that mobile ticketing standards are best agreed by intermediaries such as Evolvi and Trainline, rather than train operators with different agendas.
“With over 20 train operators, it’s not surprising that the likelihood of getting them all around a table to agree operational standards and the requirements for investment is a tall order,” he says. “It’s been positive to see Evolvi coming forward with third-party mobile and e-ticket solutions, which can then be adopted by operators. This is probably the best way forward as long-term investment from industry technology partners makes more sense.”
A new independent technology company called Railguard is automating the process of claiming compensation for delayed journeys. It says a company can recoup up to 3% of their rail spend simply by claiming the compensation they are entitled to. Working through TMCS, it trawls through the journeys booked and calculates compensation due, taking a 15% cut which it shares with TMCS.
All train operators pay back 50% of journey costs for delays of one hour, while those operating the Delay Repay scheme pay out after a 30-minute hold-up, and some for as little as 15-minute delays.
Matt Freckelton, Managing Director of Railguard, says: “Two of the top 10 TMCS are already working with us and we are talking to many others. Some businesses don’t claim any money back or leave it to the individual traveller, but as Delay Repay is extended, they could get back nearly 7% of their spend.”
Paul Dear, HRG’S Director of Supplier and Industry Affairs, says another improvement that businesses need is live data and the ability to check their travellers’ movements. But this will only work when available across the whole network.
“All travellers want more information about their journeys, and airlines communicate about delayed or cancelled flights,” he adds.
“Train operators should get to know the traveller as airlines do, but we are only at the beginning of this kind of development.”
This is one of the aspirations of new consultancy Black Box Partnerships, set up by Raj Sachdave who spent ten years with Capita Travel and Events and before that worked for Trainline.
“The crux of my business is to look at whatever supplier, and ask how they can be smarter in working with TMCS and the corporate market,” he says.
“Train operators see themselves purely as train operators and don’t consider they are part of a wider itinerary that may include parking at one end and ground transport at the other. They need to follow through on their franchise bids by interacting more deeply with the traveller.”
While most passengers want operators to get the basics right first, there is growing concern about the franchising system in the wake of VTEC’S failure on the East Coast route. Consultant Nick Hurrell says the problem is that few travellers have any choice in the train operator they use.
“The current franchise system is, in many people’s view, broken,” he says. “We are seeing fewer companies bidding for franchises and often the winning bidder is predominantly overseas owned. It seems that British companies simply can’t afford to pay the enormous rebates demanded by the Department for Transport.
“Stagecoach and Virgin simply couldn’t make a profit on East Coast and I wonder who will be next,” he says.
Many companies now mandate use of rail travel over air if feasible, an example being the Wellcome Trust charity whose people travel to and from many universities from its London base.
Its Travel Manager, Rod Richardson, says: “Long distance services are much better and good Advance fares are available, but tickets bought on the day can be eye-wateringly expensive compared to airlines.
“The wellbeing of our people is a very important part of our travel policy, and on a journey from London to Edinburgh by air there is so much wasted time. Long-distance operators are generally good, but commuter operators such as Southern are appalling. Train operators are only as good as your last journey with them.”