September 29 2022, Kimpton Fitzroy London
Friday 30 September 2022, JW Marriott Grosvenor
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
THE NATION REJOICED IN JANUARY when the Flying Scotsman, probably the world’s most famous steam locomotive, returned after a £4.2 million overhaul. But the nation winced when the annual round of rail fare rises kicked in, and further delays to electrification projects were announced amid escalating costs.
The Flying Scotsman harks back to a golden era of rail travel, whereas our railways today are busier and more congested than ever. What about today’s flying Scotsmen, or indeed flying Scotswomen – will they ever be persuaded to switch from air to rail? Achieving ‘modal shift’ is dear to many business travel planners, with an eye on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and carbon saving – but not necessarily costs.
Modest improvements to rail journey times and the onboard working environment are already persuading more business people to take the train, even on longer routes such as Edinburgh/Glasgow-London where the typical journey time is 4 hours 30 minutes.
When the HS2 high-speed line links London and northern England by around 2033, trains from Scotland will be at least one hour faster – and could be much faster than that, if the Scottish government starts building a high-speed line across the border. But that is too far ahead to plan for, and journey time improvements are needed before then.
The key to faster, more economic rail services (which often cost more, like-for-like, than flying) could lie in competition. The franchise system devised on privatisation over 20 years ago effectively hands train operators a monopoly, extracting hefty financial payments from them on the promise that they won’t have to compete. Only on a few routes is there meaningful competition from ‘open access’ operators, examples being from York and Doncaster to London, where Grand Central and Hull Trains run alongside the incumbent Virgin Trains East Coast.
But applications for several new services have been made to regulator the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), which has already approved a new London-Blackpool service to start in 2018 competing with Virgin Trains West Coast. The company behind this new service is Arriva-owned Alliance Rail, which already operates Grand Central’s trains from the North East and Yorkshire to London.
Alliance Rail has also applied for new routes competing with Virgin Trains East Coast, proposing to cut journey times to 3 hours 43 minutes between London and Edinburgh, and 2 hours 29 minutes between London and Newcastle. Other plans include a competing service to Leeds with a new parkway station east of the city, and a service from Grimsby and other stations in south Humberside, which have not had direct trains to London since the 1980s.
Tony Lodge, political analyst at think-tank the Centre for Policy Studies, urges the ORR to come to a decision quickly. “Open-access operations should be agreed if they are innovative, such as new routes or faster trains that will get people off planes,” he says. “Alliance Rail is looking for new markets, and opening up a route such as London-Leeds to competition would be very beneficial. We have already seen how open access operators bring fares down, on routes including York and Wakefield to London.
“Waiting for the ORR to make a decision can be like waiting for white smoke at the Vatican. But I am encouraged that Stephen Glaister has taken over as chairman as he is passionate about open access, and if a decision is taken soon, then Alliance Rail can talk to investors and order trains to start in 2018 or 2019.”
Even if approved, space has to be found for new operators on the congested network. Lodge hopes this will be the case with electrification of Great Western’s London-Bristol/South Wales routes, although this will not now be completed until at least 2020 due to delays by infrastructure operator Network Rail.
The Guild of Travel Management Companies (GTMC) also wants the railways opened up to competition, while infrastructure improvements are its primary concern. The Midland Main Line and Transpennine routes are also facing delays to electrification, due to be completed by 2023 and 2022 respectively.
GTMC chief executive Paul Wait says: “Investment in railway infrastructure has a critical role to play in laying solid foundations from which UK plc can continue to grow its economy through increased business travel. We are avid supporters of high-speed rail, action to reduce rail fares and investment in other modernisation projects such as ensuring the availability of free wifi.
“Reducing the number of interchanges required would mean a great improvement on the ability of business travellers to work while on the move, and our recent Business Rail Traveller survey shows that 80 per cent typically work through a large proportion of a rail journey.”
He adds: “The government claims it is carrying out the biggest rail modernisation since Victorian times, but these plans don’t seem to be moving at a sufficiently fast pace. Greater use of open access to drive down fares and drive up standards, and more investment in routes that provide a truly integrated transport network, should be just the beginning.”
Rail may have won the argument for city centre-to-city centre travel on routes of up to about three hours, but HRG is also seeing a switch to rail on routes of around four hours. Paul Dear, its global director of supplier and industry affairs, has seen more demand on routes such as Edinburgh/Glasgow-London, helped by confusion about what’s included in air fares. “If you can use the journey to work, rail might be the best use of a business traveller’s time,” he says. “But we need to consider not just the cost and time taken on the journey, but whether you might need to spend the night in a hotel if travelling by rail.
“What the business traveller needs most is the right environment to work in. Clients who are looking for a modal shift from air to rail are also interested in the CSR agenda, as carbon savings are a major driver.”
Wilmslow-based Review Travel is also enthusiastic about opening up the rail network to more competition, says CEO Christian Gleave. “We would like to see advantageous deals being offered by rail companies competing for market domination, catering to the tightening purse strings of travel bookers,” he says. “It is glaringly obvious that Britain is being left behind by our European neighbours in terms of technology and efficiency. Delays to major infrastructure projects result in the UK lacking modern technology required to provide efficient services to business travellers, and the government should recognise that investment will benefit the UK economy as a whole.
“Unreliable wifi has plagued the UK rail network for the past couple of years, hindering attempts to work on long journeys. Reliable internet connectivity should have been standard a long time ago.”
Travel management company Capita programmed a seminar at the Business Travel Show, looking at how the business traveller’s customer experience can be enhanced when travelling by rail. It is working on innovations itself, including a new mobile app called Iris:go.
Capita’s head of auxiliary partnerships and innovation, Raj Sachdave, says: “Customers want to know things like what platform their train goes from before this is announced and there is a big rush, and we can integrate rail, air and hotel bookings on one app so our customers don’t have to look at three or four websites.
“The rail industry is bringing in people from outside to look at the customer experience, and that has to be a good thing. There is a complete lack of consistency between operators on issues such as mobile ticketing, station parking and free wifi, and we would like to see a traveller’s manifesto drawn up that could be written into franchise agreements.
“The pace has increased on open access, and franchise operators such as Virgin are also opening up new routes,” adds Sachdave. “We have educated customers to access lower fares by travelling outside peak times, but there needs to be more competition between train operators during peak hours.”
Dialogue with the rail industry is also sought by the Institute of Travel and Meetings (ITM), as it seeks greater recognition for the frequent business traveller. Issues it is grappling with include automated refunds after delays, offered by Virgin Trains but only when bookings are made through its own website or app.
Will Hasler, chairman of the ITM’s industry affairs group, says: “This was done without consultation and is a thorny subject. We want people to book only through our channels, and while some companies are happy for travellers to keep any compensation, others are not.
“The business traveller needs to pass through stations quickly to board their trains, plus punctuality and a good working environment. It is good to see stations such as London King’s Cross, London Bridge, Reading and Birmingham New Street being upgraded, but we would like to see access to larger business lounges and more competition, which brings lower fares and makes train operators serve customers better. There should either be a British Rail-style monopoly or competition, but at present we are stuck between the two.
“Train operators should also look at loyalty schemes, with benefits such as access to advance fares at peak times. The ITM and GTMC would welcome dialogue on this.”