The productive use of rail travel: what do customers ask?

03/08/2021 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling
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(Version en français)

Railways cling to the hope that someday people will view its service not as something that sucks and that they hate, but as something that is actually nice and that they don’t hate. And it is possible. The boss of Trenitalia said in an interview that it was thanks to the marketing orchestrated by his competitor NTV-Italo that a clientele, who swear by the plane, showed up at the stations. These customers suddenly discovered that the Italian trains of 2015 had nothing to do with the apocalyptic tales of their parents or grandparents, that told their journeys to Sicily or Brindisi in « railway rubbish bins »…

(photo Getty image)

The main problem lies in the fact that the railway has often been associated with the poor public or those without great financial means. In the 60s and 70s there were great class differences, so much so that in continental Europe, trains which were considered luxurious at the time were created under the branding Trans-Europ-Express. They were designed for those who wore a three-piece suit and tie every day. Nowadays, sociology has evolved and several rail networks in Europe offer three classes of comfort and service, and even four in Italy. But there is still a lot of thought to be done to bring the regulars of the airplane into our trains…

It is often forgotten that the challenge of tomorrow is not only to retain customers who are already used to and convinced of train travel, but to bring onto the trains people who are used to air service and are too accustomed by car design. A big challenge! The temptation is great to imitate the airplane. On short plane trips, every passenger is offered the kindergartner’s communion of juice and cookies, as if a majority of adults are incapable of going 90 minutes without such provisions. Should rail do the same thing, or should it be different from aviation? How can we ensure that train travel is temporary a living space, and not a lost moment in the day?

Design
In terms of design, aviation and the automobile have clearly put the train far behind. To date, there is no train with an interior design as neat as that of a BMW. One of the reasons is the safety measures, with stickers all over the walls, fire extinguishers and red hammers to break the windows. Everything you need to make a train well ugly! Train toilets very often look like a doctor’s office. For some people it’s without importance, while others want to see other colors and other materials. “Train travel is often regarded as the poor relation to air travel,” says at the BBC Paul Priestman, co-founder of London-based design studio PriestmanGoode, which specialises in transport. “There’s been a lot less investment in train design.” Factors that make train travel more pleasant include greater privacy, more luxurious materials, attractive signage, considered lighting, a smooth, quiet journey and, above all, space. “One area which can be greatly improved in our overcrowded trains is to give passengers more space,” says Priestman.

Study of Nightjet’s sleeping-car (photo Priestman Good)

The Priestman agency proposed part of the design for the future Railjets and Nightjets of the ÖBB. Passengers’ convenience can be considered down to the smallest detail; for example, a ramp is incorporated into the steps used to enter the train, so that luggage can be easily wheeled on board.

Giving space is a real economic challenge: every meter is important in a car that can cost between 600,000 and 2 million euros depending on the case. The 72 cars of the British Caledonian-Sleeper cost £150 million (€2.41 million), which is not insignificant. Research published by Loco2, has highlighted in 2018 how both trains and planes allocate less space to the passenger than given by law to cattle on their way to slaughter. A medium-sized calf at 75kg is legally entitled 0.5m² whereas planes only supply 0.35m² per passenger. This statistic has caused 60 per cent of flyers to consider trains for their journeys, however in comparison trains only provide a total of 0.39m².

So, it takes a lot of ingenuity to try to find an economic balance. This is one of the reasons for the lack of space for bicycles: they occupy wasted square meters, especially as many cyclists ask free transport!

On-board service
On-board service is a priority if you are targeting a public that is reluctant to take the train. This is what new operators such as Regiojet in the Czech Republic, Virgin in Great Britain or NTV-Italo in Italy have done. Price are not all. Comfort have great importance.

It is proven that investing in customer experience brings business success. Customers compare and make decisions based on what is said about your service on social media. It is therefore important to be aware of the channels and apps where customers share their views. Another interesting trend is the need for Wi-Fi and battery. Since we live in the era of the Internet of Things, we expect to be connected constantly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

(photo Avanti West Coast)

Bob Powell, Customer Proposition Director at Avanti West Coast, says recently that around 90 per cent of Avanti customers say that Wi-Fi is ‘important’ or ‘very important’ to their journey. « We know what people use it for – mostly for checking and writing emails, social media, following the news, listening to music and tracking their journey. »

For Avanti West Coast, which runs on the WCML, reliable connectivity is paramount for people travelling for work who want a productive journey time. For leisure travellers, keeping in touch with social media and browsing the internet can be important for a relaxing and enjoyable journey.  « Good connectivity onboard encourages people to use rail and keep coming back to us. For example, if a person has a choice between travelling by car or by train, we know that quality Wi-Fi is an important factor in favour of them using the train, » explains Powell.

Wifi is highly desirable for customers to take train (photo Avanti West Coast)

However, it should never be thought that wifi – or similar technology – will remain impossible in aviation. In the futur, a new means of communication will have been created, and what is today an argument for the train could be set in motion at 10,000m in the sky. Once again, rail will have to reinvent itself and find new arguments, other than those related to the climate.

Making dead time disappear from the journey is nevertheless a priority in today’s social standards and the train has all the assets to provide useful time.

The other great asset is the service provided on board. Many long-distance trains have a bar. For some customers, eating or drinking is of paramount importance. But catering is expensive. We can therefore measure different formulas in Europe, which vary greatly because they are linked to the social culture of each country. In the Alpine countries (Switzerland, Austria, Germany), food is served in porcelain dishware. In other countries, the offers consist with classic filled sandwich or packed salads.

Some rail networks have adopted a three-class on-board offer. This is designed to charge those who really want to eat on board and have a full service. For example, the Renfe in Spain has always offered its ‘Preferente’, while the ÖBBs have a class now called ‘Business’, where you can be almost alone in a compartment. When it comes to catering, breakfast has been a key criterion in the marketing of Austrian Nightjets.

Business Class on the Austrian railways ÖBB (photo ÖBB)

Breakfast on the Austrian railways ÖBB (photo wikipedia)

In Germany, Deutsche Bahn has changed virtually nothing in 30 years of ICE. There are still two classes and the bar coach which separating them. Recently, Thalys and Lyria have also adopted the three classes, the most expensive of which, ‘Premium’, allows you to eat with a chef’s meal. Don’t look too much at the wallet. On Eurostar, Standard Premier and Business Premier fares include a light meal with wine (or breakfast, on departures before 11:00). Italy is therefore the country where the offer is the most segmented. Frecciarossa HST trains have four classes. Premium & Business classes include snacks and non-alcoholic drinks, while Executive class includes hot or cold meals and soft and alcoholic drinks as well as a personalised service. The competitor NTV-Italo offers similar services but with three classes.

Breakfast on board of Lyria (photo SNCF InOui)

It’s difficult to say whether all these culinary services kill off the dead time of the travel, but it’s certain that it has become an important part of the customer experience.

Object of certain criticisms more philosophical than objective, the TGV Ouigo in France, and soon in Spain, offer the train hearty and without frills, at low prices. These one-class trains are an answer to a clientele that doesn’t need much, just to get around without emptying its bank account.

However, it must be kept in mind that the factors affecting time use of business and non-business travelers differ. HSR service design should facilitate passenger engagement in various activities and improvement of their travel experience. A stable internet connection, adequate power sockets, and a noise-free environment promote both work and leisure activities on the HSR.

There is a very difficult factor to integrate: the psychology of each traveler. Some people can’t stand a child’s voice when others have no problem talking loudly on the phone or moving around on the train all the time. In this respect, the customer experience can quickly turn sour. Digital technologies could make it possible, by filling in certain preferences when making a reservation, to group together people « of the same pedigree » in the same car. With the risk of social segregation? Oh, if it’s requested by customers, why bypass them? This would make it possible to separate fans of rugby from Maupassant readers. What’s wrong with this?

But what can also bring customers back to the railways is the ease with which tickets can be obtained and, above all, exchanged at the last minute. In connection with the above, a reserved seat according to the customer’s requests should be guaranteed at the time of purchase, but the seat number would only be given 10 to 15 minutes before departure, by SMS or a terminal on the platform for those with a paper ticket. This would make it possible to manage the last few minutes and postpone to the next train when the first train chosen is 100% full. Design, wifi, catering and digital ticketing should enable rail to do better than aviation. Stations should then be better equipped, but we have already talked about this…

Breakfast in a sleeping-car from Nightjet (photo ÖBB)

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