How can the train win back business travellers?

Business customers have high expectations when it comes to travel. The train can conquer this clientele but under certain conditions.

Business travel in some form has been undertaken since the time people started trading with each other. Business travel can be divide business travel into individual business travel, which comprises the regular trips necessary to carry out employment tasks; and business tourism which includes a variety of business meetings and events like meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions.

Travel facilities did not appear immediately after the war. In 1957, the railways introduced the Trans-Europ-Express (TEE) concept, a network of first-class express trains only with a surcharge. At that time, many lines were not yet electrified, and travelling abroad was still a habit reserved for a certain elite and corporate executives. The TEE even offered a secretarial service on board the trains and, later, the possibility of telephoning.

If businessmen wanted to go further, they had to take a night train and reserve a compartment for themselves, which meant paying a first-class ticket with a sleeping car supplement called « Single ».

In the 1960s with the arrival of plentiful flights, the business travels expended greatly all over Europe. From then on, many businessmen could make a round trip London-Glasgow, Göteborg-Stockholm or Amsterdam-Munich during the day, which made the train more and more obsolete.

Today we fly in for 2 hours of meetings or a half-day seminar. This has allowed the firms to have decentralized locations according to their structure. But sometimes it is the State that is responsible for this large consumption of travel. So, the German government has itself booked in 2018 just under 230,000 flights for officials where fifty-two percent of those flights were between Berlin and Cologne-Bonn Airport. Why this destination? Because it is where six of Germany’s 14 national ministries are still located.

As a result, trains increasingly lost this demanding clientele, which had the advantage of bringing comfortable revenues to the railways. The democratization of travel to an increasingly large public led to a weakening of the use of TEE and a questioning of the model, which migrated to the two-class Intercity, then in the 1980s to the Eurocity. TEE disappeared in 1987, thirty years after their birth. What was left for businessmen?

SNCF TGV, 1981… (photo SNCF)

The answer was both disruptive – high speed – but also classic – copying the aerial model on the railways – with reservation and catering instead. After long-lasting successes in Japan (Shinkansen), France (TGV), and Germany (ICE), HST has seen further success stories in countries like China, Italy and Spain. It is presented as a key technology for greener transportation and railway stations are usually those existing close to city centers rather than airports far away from the city. He was able to regain a once lost clientele, but what billions in investments were needed to get there! High-speed lines in Europe, despite their similarities to a railway, differ greatly in certain technical criteria, such as a greater number of engineering structures and tunnels.

But when the TGV expanded all over Europe, he was already facing two major changes:

  • starting in the 2000s, aviation found a new low cost business model that put pressure on prices;
  • this new business model attracted another business clientele, which was no longer the elite of TEE but start-up managers and corporate executives who no longer wanted to pay astronomical sums of money to travel.

As a result, despite the boom in video conferencing, the pace of travel has never been more intense, especially in the business travel segment, which was the lifeblood of aviation. The railways once again had to offer advantages that aviation could not: fast access to trains without multiple safety gantries (except in Spain and Eurostar) and, above all, wifi, which at first was something difficult but which over the years has improved to turn travel time into working time… for those who wanted it.

The travel time considered « acceptable » by the business clientele was gradually increased, according to some surveys, to four hours. At the same time, there was a considerable drop in aviation market share on routes such as Paris-Marseille, Madrid-Barcelona, Milan-Rome or even Berlin-Munich.

The corona crisis and the green wave, on the other hand, have recently called into question not only the air travel model but above all this unbridled consumption of journeys in Europe. The Covid-19 crisis has this time led to a sharp increase in teleworking and videoconferencing. In June 2020, traffic was half as much on trains, despite a gradual recovery.

Night train solution?

An important market in the business world is the hotel industry. When a conference or seminar takes place from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, air travel is often not adequate, especially when these events take place in smaller, underserved cities. In such cases, an overnight stay in a hotel is a must for many participants.

(photo ÖBB)

There is, however, one solution that could meet certain time requirements: night trains. After all, the night is one night for everyone. During 8 hours, you sleep while you move, over 600 or 1,200 kilometres. The travel time is not important here, because the train becomes… your hotel. The aim is to arrive at your destination around 7.30 am for the 9.00 am conference. At the end of the day, you come back to your « hotel on wheels » in the evening to go home the next day. The gain: two nights less in a hotel and savings for your company.

But in order to achieve maximum quality, more night trains are needed than at present. All of them must have a sleeping car with a private cabin and wifi. Fares must be flexible until the last minute. The service on board must be impeccable. Business customers should not be left out on a cold platform, but should be comfortably seated in a lounge in the station while waiting for the evening train. It is only with this quality that we will be able to bring business customers to the rail.

(photo ÖBB)

Finally, we can add two segments for business travel:

  • the TGV for distances of 300 to 500 kilometres;
  • the night train for longer distances.

With such a network, almost all of Europe’s major cities can be served and costly air travel can be avoided.