Can travellers make the most of their time when taking the train? Dave Richardson investigates
Anyone who is hard pressed for time has a lot to curse the railways for - and not just because the dreaded 07.42 commuter cattle train to London is late again.
The first passenger trains were introduced in the 1830s and it wasn't until the 1960s when "club trains" operated on some commuter routes, providing First Class passengers with the environment to socialise or sip coffee while perusing the Financial Times. Nowadays things are quite different. We are enslaved by electronic communications and asked to work all the hours God sends and some more.
Many companies have joined a mass migration to rail over the last few years, abandoning short-haul flights and long-distance travel by car. Most are familiar with the time savings, cost savings (if you book in advance) and carbon emission savings if you switch to rail, but what about the working environment? Can you make the best use of your precious time when travelling by rail?
The answer, of course, is that it all depends on the train operating company (TOC), the route, and performance on any given journey. Some TOCs provide a good working environment on trains and at stations, while others provide an environment more suitable for canned sardines.
The first rule when aiming to spend time productively is to book your ticket in advance. Britain's railways are now more heavily used than at any time in the last 50 years, and you don't want to join the scrum at the ticket office and risk missing your train, which could wreck your day - or even your career.
This point is graphically brought home in a light-hearted TV commercial by thetrainline.com, showing sheep running around a station, getting out of taxis, going up and down escalators and queuing to buy tickets. The ad was filmed in New Zealand, where they have a lot of sheep and no worries about offending British sensibilities.
Director of marketing Iain Hildreth says: "Sheep are notorious for being a bit silly, and the advert compares their behaviour to that of the 'smart' man who has already bought his tickets on thetrainline.com and made significant savings."
Thetrainline.com and its major competitor, Evolvi, allow passengers to book in advance (typically at a discount of 30 per cent if you avoid the busiest trains) and collect tickets either at machines on a business's premises, through a TMC, or through the ticket machines now installed at most main stations. All you need to do is swipe your card and input a locator code, but there can be times when the machines don't work.
- First Class lounges have been available at some main line stations for decades, and provide a haven away from busy concourses, but with few of the facilities found in airline lounges.
- Some have bookable meeting rooms.
- You will get free drinks, biscuits and newspapers, plus working areas and maybe toilets, but that's about it.
Some train operators are introducing wifi at lounges, but with privatisation lounges are now operated by specific TOCs. A CrossCountry customer, for example, would not be welcome at a lounge operated by Virgin Trains, whereas until a year ago CrossCountry was also operated by Virgin.
Whether a lounge is available at all depends on likely demand, and the availability of space at stations. It seems odd that no First Class lounges are available on the Virgin network north of Manchester and Liverpool, not even at major business hubs such as Preston or Glasgow Central, but that may change in future.
Eurostar has set new standards with its Business Premier lounge at St Pancras International, which is more akin to an airline lounge in services and spaciousness, offering views over the beautifully restored station. But whether any domestic operator could match this is questionable.
The next priority for productive working time is a comfortable seat, ideally at a table, which can usually be pre-booked, preferably in First Class. Most long-distance operators offer this option, as do many of the commuter operators serving London. A notable exception is Chiltern Railways, which offers Standard Class only.
Some operators provide First Class only on certain trains and routes, and you could face long journeys on First ScotRail or First Great Western in Standard Class. Whichever you choose, you might find fierce competition to secure a seat at a table. Operators, including First Great Western, have removed many tables in Standard Class to cram in more seats, such is the demand.
Most long-distance operators provide a "quiet coach" in both classes, where the use of mobiles and iPods and general rowdiness is banned, without making any efforts to ensure this is enforced. Business travellers may wish to avoid these coaches as they need to use their phones, but you are most unlikely to get through a journey without hearing at least one passenger bellowing into a phone. Signs on every table and seat back would at least make it easier to shame offenders.
Many new generation long-distance trains - such as Virgin's Pendolinos and Super Voyagers, and the CrossCountry fleet - are fitted with power points for laptops and mobiles, and these are being progressively installed as older trains are refurbished. Passengers must remember to take chargers and laptop leads, although many are in the habit of leaving them behind.
The major area of development - and a big requirement for doing business on the move in the 21st Century - is broadband wifi , or at least better mobile phone reception than is commonly available when on the move. Blanket mobile phone coverage is probably never going to be a reality on trains, but some operators are investing heavily in better on-board communications and one even allows passengers to chat away in tunnels.
GNER, which used to run the East Coast franchise from London to the North East and Scotland, was the first operator to make wifi widely available, being deployed on all its trains by the end of 2007. This was always free to First Class passengers, but since National Express East Coast took over, free wifi has also been available in Standard Class, previously having cost £4.95 an hour.
Head of communications, Alan Hyde, says: "The popularity of wifi has surpassed our expectations. We expect to see even bigger increases in usage as more of our customers switch on to the benefits of being able to work while travelling at high speed.
"Employers along the East Coast route tell us that the addition of wifi is another reason for them to change from air to rail, as it is easier for their employees to stay in touch and work while on the move."
A survey showed that 85 per cent of laptop users connected to the internet at some point in their journeys, and wifi is now being extended to major East Coast stations including York. You can now log on anywhere on platforms 1 to 5.
Virgin Trains is now addressing this, which is good news for its travellers on key business routes from London to the West Midlands, North West and Glasgow. From March 2009, wifi will be available between London and Rugby in Warwickshire, and by the end of the year should be extended to Birmingham and Manchester, with the whole network wired up some time in 2010. However, it will not be installed initially on the Super Voyager trains.
A spokesman explains: "We are enabling our entire 52-strong fleet of Pendolino trains with wifi , and putting the shore-based equipment in place in conjunction with Network Rail and the equipment provider, Nomad Digital. We know wifi works well on trains, but there are different ways of achieving it. It really is a must-have, and fulfils our pledge to provide a true working environment on the move."
Virgin is also working hard on improved mobile phone coverage, with all Pendolino trains due to have been upgraded by the end of 2008. "Mobile coverage has been frustrating, but will soon be as good on the train as if you were standing in a field beside the track," adds the spokesman. "But there'll always be places where reception is poor."
Better mobile coverage is regarded by many as more important than wifi , as it enables clearer calls and access via BlackBerrys or similar devices to email.
Surfing the web using wifi is less of a priority for many business users, and it is interesting to note that Eurostar has no immediate plans to introduce this on its trains, although wifi is available free in business lounges.
Virgin also offers this in First Class lounges, having also expanded the main lounge at Euston, and adding a second "coffee lounge" behind the ticket office.
The "Virgin High Frequency" timetable is being introduced from December 15, including trains every 20 minutes throughout the day on the London- Birmingham and London-Manchester routes, which may reduce demand for lounges as you can basically turn up and go.
But the spokesman adds: "We think lounge demand will remain high, and one reason is that business travellers often arrive at their destination station early, and need somewhere peaceful and private to prepare for a meeting."
Virgin High Frequency - as well as introducing faster trains - also heralds a revamp of catering in First Class, retaining the "Great British Breakfast" and introducing full meals on all trains departing London between 16.00 and 19.00, with a choice of main courses.
An at-seat meals service in First Class is another way that business travellers can be more productive. Virgin West Coast, National Express East Coast and East Anglia, East Midlands Trains and First Great Western are among operators offering hot meals to First Class passengers at their seats, but not usually on all trains and sometimes limited to breakfast.
Trains make travelling time more productive in many other ways, including immediate check in or baggage retrieval, as at airports; travelling between city centres; and - dare one say it - the ability to stare out of the window, idly or otherwise.
This is difficult on operators such as Virgin and First Great Western, where the high density, high-backed seats in Standard Class make it like peering through a forest. But being able to do so is something to be cherished.
Virgin Trains - whose slogan is "Love Every Second" - has published a booklet called Be Inspired by Time, which reveals how celebrities use time to become better business people.
We learn, for example, that Virgin's Sir Richard Branson believes "beaches, dead rabbits, aunts and disguises" to be the roots of business success. As the booklet notes, "Every minute is a blank sheet of paper. Anything's possible."
MAIN OPERATORS - WHO OFFERS WHAT:
All trains have power points and at-seat service in First Class, and wifi and enhanced mobile reception are being fitted to Pendolino trains operating out of London. First Class lounges are available at London Euston, Birmingham International, Birmingham New Street, Coventry, Manchester Piccadilly, Liverpool Lime Street, Runcorn, Stoke-on- Trent and Wolverhampton. First Class passengers have food included, with hot meals at breakfast and in the evening peak (London services only).
National Express East Coast:
This was the first operator to introduce wifi throughout its fleet, and it is free to all passengers. Power points are being introduced throughout First Class and a restaurant car is available to First Class passengers on selected services, and to those in Standard on a space available basis. First Class lounges are available at London King's Cross, Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh Waverley, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Darlington, Wakefield Westgate and Doncaster stations; and meeting rooms at King's Cross, Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh.
East Midlands Trains:
Operating from St Pancras to the East Midlands and Sheffield, it offers power points on newer Meridian trains, cooked breakfast on selected services, and free snacks in First Class. Free wifi is available for First Class passengers at Derby, Leicester and St Pancras, and will be added at Sheffield, Chesterfi eld and Nottingham.
The only truly nationwide operator offers power points and at-seat service of light meals in First Class, and is introducing longer, refurbished High Speed Trains on some North East- South West routes from December. It does not offer lounge access.
Services are Standard Class only, but refurbishment of Clubman trains on the London Marylebone-Birmingham route includes power points at tables, and tables that fold out to make more room for laptops.
First Capital Connect:
Operating between London, Brighton, Bedford, Peterborough, Cambridge and King's Lynn and serving the airports at Gatwick and Luton, it also connects with Eurostar at its new underground station at St Pancras International. It does not offer extra business services as such, but will introduce new and longer trains in the next few years as part of the Thameslink initiative.
Part of the Airport Express marketing group, which includes the Gatwick Express, the operator's high-frequency service from London Paddington is fully wifi -enabled. It provides passengers with a typical broadband connection speed of 2Mbps throughout the entire journey, including a 6km tunnel.
Power points are available in Business Premier class but there are no plans for wifi , although this is available in the lounge at St Pancras. Business Premier passengers can check in up to 10 minutes before departure, and can choose an express breakfast if they wish to work. Meals are included in Business Premier fares.
According to Rail Europe, which can book any Continental operator, services for business travellers are developing rapidly. Selected French stations have wifi , including several in Paris and Strasbourg, and wifi is available in all Eurostar terminals. It is also offered on board Thalys trains, which run from Paris to Brussels and on to Amsterdam and Cologne; and on German high-speed (ICE) trains running from Dortmund to Cologne, Frankfurt Airport to Cologne, and (from the end of 2008) from Frankfurt to Hamburg and Munich. On the new TGV Est trains between Paris and Strasbourg, there are meeting points that can be booked for three or four people.