Friday 30 September 2022, JW Marriott Grosvenor
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
Business Travel Show Europe, presented by The BTN
WE BRITISH USED TO BE the industry leaders when it came to high-speed trains. A loco called City of Truro was the first to achieve 100mph by steam power in 1904, and in 1938 the streamlined Mallard hit 126mph to set a world record for steam.
And it was British Rail which introduced the fastest diesel trains in the world in 1976, running at 125mph on the London-to-Bristol and South Wales route. These high-speed trains, (InterCity 125s), are still going strong today, and with new engines some will be in service for many years to come. However, the only high-speed development in the UK since then was the opening of HS1, Britain’s first purpose-built high-speed line, completed from London St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel in 2007.
Yet, despite its fast start and Southeastern Trains running at an impressive 140mph to Kent stations, Britain has arrived late in the high-speed stakes. Eurostar runs at 300kmph (187mph) from London to Paris and Brussels, while in Spain, for example, 187mph is the norm for high-speed rail. Britain has achieved great things by operating 125mph trains on existing tracks, however, whereas completely new routes had to be built in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Japan, South Korea and, more recently, China.
However, this could soon change. The government wants to build HS2 from London to Birmingham, and then create a Y-shaped network continuing to Manchester and Leeds. The Department for Transport has costed this at £32 billion, and predicts economic benefits of £44bn and fare revenues of £27bn over a 60-year period.
There has been a huge shift in business travel from air and car to rail in the last few years, driven by improved services, on-board wifi, faster journey times and the green agenda. Online booking systems Evolvi and thetrainline.com have highlighted the savings possible with advance booking, and surveys by the Guild of Travel Management Companies (GTMC) have shown double digit growth in rail bookings, while all other sectors have slumped.
So it’s no surprise that the GTMC is a strong supporter of HS2, calling for the high-speed line to continue to Scotland. Its business traveller surveys of 2009 and 2010 found that a high-speed rail network was rated the most important infrastructure development – ahead of motorway improvements and airport expansion.
HS2 has caused uproar and a predictable outbreak of nimbyism, especially where it will cut through the scenic Chilterns. If everything went to plan, Birmingham would be 49 minutes from London, and Manchester and Leeds 80 minutes. Glasgow and Edinburgh would be reached in 3h 30m with trains using existing tracks north of Manchester or Leeds. The second phase would also include a link to Heathrow.
The GTMC says more business travellers will switch to rail if HS2 is built, but warns: “Of key importance will be how affordable the service is. Managing demand by increasing fares would seem to be a throwback to the bad old days of rail planning.”
GTMC chief executive Anne Godfrey says: “The real benefits of HS2 will come when it reaches Manchester and Scotland. Our members are being asked increasingly to book people on trains rather than planes, but companies are not fulfilling their duty of care by asking people to travel five hours each way on a train, and return the same day.”
Public consultation over HS2 ended in July, and the government is now mulling over the responses. The lobby against it is growing, with the Stop HS2 campaign’s website claiming: “No business case. No environmental case. No money to pay for it.” The Institute of Economic Affairs has warned HS2 could become “the latest in a long series of government big project disasters”, raising fresh doubts that it will ever be built.
Even if the go-ahead is given soon, the first phase of HS2 to Birmingham would not open before 2026, with Manchester and Leeds following (perhaps) in the 2030s. We will have to make the best of our existing high-speed services for the foreseeable future, with 125mph the maximum speeds in the UK (except through Kent).
With these speeds, the train can usually beat the plane on city centre to city centre journeys of up to three hours. Virgin Trains has become the dominant player in the London- Manchester market, and seen off all airline competition on London- Liverpool. Leeds Bradford airport has also lost all flights to London, with East Coast Trains now operating every 30 minutes between Leeds and the capital.
The main operators of 125mph services are Virgin, East Coast and First Great Western, but unlike the others First Great Western does not compete with airlines on its routes from London to the West Country and South Wales. The government has announced a £700 million plan to electrify these routes as far as Bristol and Cardiff, replacing the existing high-speed trains and trimming 17 minutes from Cardiff to London and 22 minutes off Bristol to London.
Virgin is probably the biggest success story of the rail industry, replacing all its trains, speeding up services and increasing frequency following massive investment by infrastructure operator Network Rail in the routes from London to the West Midlands, North West and Glasgow. Passenger numbers have doubled from 14 million to 28 million in the last six years, but a new operator could take over in December 2012 when the franchise is renewed. Virgin can expect stiff competition.
The big news this year is a revamp by East Coast Trains, operating from London to the North East and Scotland. East Coast has followed Virgin by introducing complimentary at-seat catering for all first class passengers (on journeys over 70 minutes) while speeding up some services and boosting frequency.
Harrogate and Lincoln get new links with London, but only one train a day now serves Glasgow.
The East Coast route has proved problematic, as previous operators GNER and National Express both had their franchises terminated, mainly due to financial pressures.
East Coast Trains is currently being run directly by the government, with a new franchise operator expected to start in early 2013.
East Coast commercial and customer service director, Peter Williams, says: “Our share of London- Edinburgh traffic compared to airlines has nearly doubled from 13 to 24 per cent in the last five years, and airlines are under a lot of pressure with increases in their costs. On London- Newcastle, our share has increased by a third in five years to 64 per cent.
“The new first class is definitely working for us. Market research shows 70 per cent feel the quality of food is good or very good, and there is also high satisfaction with service delivery and value for money, which is higher in first class now that food is included.”
Many business travellers are now mandated to travel standard class, which is increasingly crowded; but if you buy a Scottish Executive Package (£199 return, Edinburgh- London) you get a guaranteed upgrade to first class with complimentary meals – and it’s a huge saving on walk-up fares (it is usually around £380 for a first class return between Edinburgh and London).
Virgin (from Glasgow) and East Coast (from Edinburgh) are now pushing airlines on their core trunk routes to London, even for the time-conscious business market. Typical journey time by rail from both cities is around 4h 30m, although East Coast has a new Flying Scotsman business service reaching London in exactly four hours, arriving at 9.40am.
The plane may always beat the train on journeys such as these, but with generally reliable wifi, a good working environment, complimentary first class meals and good value advance fares, rail is looking increasingly attractive even without HS2.
Major European countries developed high-speed rail long before the UK even thought about it, because they had the political and public will. The first of France’s TGV trains ran in 1981, and routes now span most of the country. Germany also has a strong network, while the Thalys system, centred on Brussels, includes routes to Amsterdam, Paris and Cologne and is majority owned by French rail operator SNCF.
Business travellers can connect to these systems from Eurostar, but many arrive by air then continue by rail. Spain has expanded its high-speed network by adding routes, including Madrid to Barcelona and Valencia, and will link up with France next year with a journey time from Barcelona to Perpignan of only 50 minutes.
By the end of this year a new Italian high-speed service will be launched by private operator NTV, using the brand name Italo and connecting nine cities including Rome, Naples, Turin and Milan. A new Dutch highspeed operator is due to start in 2012, competing with Thalys.
In December 2013, German operator Deutsche Bahn aims to start operating its ICE high-speed trains direct from London to Cologne (under four hours), Frankfurt (five hours) and Amsterdam (four hours).
Eurostar aims to launch new routes, including Amsterdam, from 2014, these developments being part of an EC-led liberalisation of rail travel.
Deutsche Bahn already has a strong presence in the UK business market, with high-speed links to Frankfurt airport being a major plus point. Its Corporate Traveller scheme offers discounts starting from 3 per cent for a minimum spend of €3,000.
“You can already reach Cologne in about four hours with a change in Brussels, have a four-hour meeting and be back in London by 9pm,” says Deutsche Bahn director of international sales UK/Ireland, Oliver Schmidt. “The change in Brussels is simple but it is a psychological barrier, so from the end of 2013 [when the service will be direct] these journeys will be more appealing.”
While travellers on UK routes have excellent online booking systems provided by Evolvi, thetrainline.com and others, the same is not true for Europe – especially for cross-border travel. Through tickets can be booked on Eurostar to many stations in France and Belgium plus a few other points, and the major national systems can be booked through the global distribution systems (GDSs). But a pan-European rail booking system, fully integrated with air, hotels and car rental, is many years away.
Tony Berry, HRG director of industry and fare distribution, says: “At present, pan-European rail booking is in the hands of a few specialists, which constrains growth. Amadeus is developing an interesting rail platform, but GDSs cannot solve the problem on their own as rail operators are reluctant to share information.”
It will be some years to come before there is a system which suits everyone but one welcome development is a link between thetrainline.com and Rail Europe, enabling direct access to many European fares through thetrainline. com’s website. Rail Europe estimates that up to 30 per cent of its turnover comes from business travel, mainly point-to-point, but also connections with Eurostar. Evolvi is considering a similar link, but with full content including policy enforcement tools.
The world’s first high-speed lines were in Japan where the Shinkansen network of ‘bullet trains’ started operating in 1964, initially at speeds of 130mph. It now runs at 187mph connecting most major cities. South Korea has developed a network more recently, but predictably China has been pushing ahead faster than anywhere else.
China’s first high-speed route was from Beijing to Tianjin in 2008. The biggest development is the opening of the 820-mile Beijing to Shanghai route in June, with passengers completing the journey in under five hours at a cruising speed of 187kmph.
Construction took just three years, although the recent crash on the high-speed line, which killed 40 people, has raised concerns. The government has temporarily halted any new high-speed rail developments while the cause of the accident is being investigated.
Even when the rail system is back on track in China, a travel manager booking a traveller on to one of these trains – despite best efforts – can’t. The systems are just too different. China is one of many worldwide destinations sold by International Rail, a leading specialist agency. Russia and South Korea have also been added to its system recently, but the European countries are still its core business.
Chairman of International Rail, Rod Maton, says: “Everyone wants an online system covering everything, but that won’t happen. We are connected to about 15 systems and can create websites for business agents, but China can’t be booked online.”
Across the pond there are also plans to develop high-speed rail, mainly along the east coast but also in California, Florida and around Chicago. The only high-speed route at present (up to 125mph) is from Washington to New York and Boston, but Amtrak’s Acela trains are only 30 minutes faster than standard trains between Washington and New York, and 45 minutes faster between New York and Boston.
Amtrak hopes to transform these routes with speeds of up to 220mph, but a nagging doubt remains about security.
The Senate has expressed concern recently that the rail network is vulnerable to terrorists, and while Amtrak uses random baggage searches and sniffer dogs, it lacks airport-style screening systems.
Eurostar has airport-style screening, but, even so, Business Premier passengers can check-in up to 10 minutes before departure. At most railway stations worldwide you can hop on a train right up to departure, which is one of the major benefits for rail travel against flying. If major security measures were introduced, this would be impractical, but of course the consequences of a major terror attack would be grim indeed.
EAST COAST TRAINS, LONDON-EDINBURGH
East Coast had a make-over in May this year, including complimentary meals in first class and some journey-time improvements.
King’s Cross is even more chaotic than usual during re-building, so the spacious first-class lounge is a refuge and I had time for a coffee there before my 10am departure. The train left on time and I immediately logged on for the complimentary wifi service, which worked reliably all the way to Edinburgh.
First class offers a good working environment with a choice of single airline-style seats, single seats facing each other across a table, or tables for four – all with power points. Tea and coffee were served promptly and the train soon hit its 125mph top speed.
The timetable clearly states that breakfast is available on all northbound services up to 10.35am, but this was not so – the menu states “until around 9.30am”. The midmorning menu offers pastries, and either a bacon sandwich, fruit or yoghurt. The menus are confusing, with no fewer than six on weekday trains. After breakfast and the midmorning menu there is the all-day menu, afternoon tea on selected services, an evening meal (also on selected services) and the evening menu. There was no afternoon tea when I returned the following afternoon, and the evening meal is only available on some departures from London between 5pm and 7pm, and not on southbound services to London.
I enjoyed my ‘all-day’ sandwiches and cake, (a salad or cauliflower cheese tart were also available). East Coast also has an extensive range of complimentary drinks, with some excellent wines.
Verdict: The train reached Edinburgh on time with a journey time of 4h 18m from London and, on the whole, East Coast’s first class is much improved.
Fares: The first class return journey booked 10 days ahead through thetrainline.com cost £204.50, or £199 for a Scottish Executive Package ticket with complimentary first class upgrade. The walk-up return first class fare was £384.