The rail industry must radically rethink its proposition to business customers in order to lure them out of their online bunkers

A radical reinvention is needed

What’s strange is how quickly people have changed! I’ve noticed a few times recently some bemused looks from industry folk when I’ve explained, often as a reason not to have a Teams call with them, that I’m otherwise engaged, ‘out and about’ doing my work. I could be mystery shopping, taking a training course, or simply meeting like-minded folk in coffee shops, hotel foyers, visiting offices, model railway shops or at county cricket grounds. People make comments or give disdainful looks that suggest I’m eccentric and quirky, or just plain weird.

The problem nowadays is that many industry professionals are simply unable to comprehend that the working day does not have to consist of an endless cycle of online calls, many of which are just held for the sake of it. Without having a pointless Teams meeting, they fear that they simply have no purpose in life, and a gap in their schedule means they are no better than someone bunking off work. What about time needed to reflect, to write up documents or just to plan ahead? And with all this nonsense comes the poor etiquette, such as folk loosely saying ‘shall we get on a call?’ as if that is the solution to everything – inviting a whole load of people together, many of them hangers on, just because someone is incapable of thinking for themselves, taking accountability and making a decision. And what about that cardinal sin of sending out a Teams Invitation without checking that people can actually make the date and time you have suggested, as though your availability is all that matters, and everyone else’s diary must surely be free? I just treat these kinds of requests with the contempt they deserve and ignore them.

This enslavement to working behind a computer on calls all day and shunning the public transport system that is our livelihood is the ultimate case of ‘biting the hand that feeds you’. If this is what our sector’s friends are like, you wouldn’t wish to meet its enemies. One consolation is that if railway managers are disinclined to travel for the same reasons as others, then they should be well placed to understand the changes required to entice business customers back.

Although I’m trumpeting the virtues of my own routine of spending almost the entire week ‘out and about’, I’d be lying if I said it was a great experience. There’s a litany of frustrations for a business customer – high fares, poor Wi-Fi, rubbish on-board catering and a lack of decent facilities at stations to make a quick pre-journey call. Meanwhile, railway staff are all too often being municipal in their approach and not going the extra mile to appreciate those of us who have shunned the home computer to pay their wages. I have, however, noticed an improvement in the demeanor of frontline staff in the past year, even if there’s still room for improvement.

The Rail Revenue Recovery Group (RRRG) is working stoically on efforts to attract customers back to rail, and I hope it is working on business customers

The Rail Revenue Recovery Group (RRRG) is working stoically on efforts to attract customers back to rail, and I hope it is working on business customers. There needs to be a campaign to extol the virtues of using the network for meetings and in particular the benefits of social interaction to do business, rather than relying on these formulaic, wretched Teams calls. The industry – probably the RRRG, Network Rail or ultimately GBR (as the scope of the new National Rail Concessions will relegate the train operators to automated subservience), needs to focus on creating workspace at stations to make it easier to do calls, have meetings and entertain clients in a decent setting as part of their working day.

Business folk shouldn’t have to search for a coffee shop close to a station or hotel foyer for meetings, as they make the most of their travels round the network. There should be warm, welcoming facilities on stations with serene, confined areas to log on for a call and fairly luxurious surroundings to meet over a coffee, with a plush toilet close by. Of course, the TOCs will claim that there are First Class lounges or office spaces that can be rented, but these are only at the big Inter City stations and they are fairly minimalist as well and lacking cozy nooks and crannies for private meetings. They also rely on all attendees having a valid First Class ticket. The industry must realise that for many (sadly) the prospect of travelling by rail for a face-to-face meeting is fairly unpalatable – so the ability to have the right facilities to do business as part of the journey is a ‘given’ if we are to get them back. Access to lounges and other equivalent facilities should therefore be provided at no extra cost.

On-board refreshments are also important. Catering was going down the pan, even before the pandemic, but Covid has almost been carte blanche for TOCs not even to feel embarrassed about the most half-hearted approach towards providing refreshments. I genuinely wouldn’t book a First Class ticket on any Inter City operator under the assumption that the complimentary nosh would be either no good or not available at all, particularly at weekends. Where else would you pay a premium expecting refreshments for them to simply not materialise?

Even where it isn’t included as part of the ticket, the trolleys that make a cursory visit through the trains are almost always staffed by some poor apologetic employee looking embarrassed by the fact that 10 minutes into the journey (sometimes, as I experienced last week, one as long as four hours) all that is on offer is a packet of peanuts, a can of cider, one ploughman’s sandwich and 10 BLTs (I am yet to find anyone that actually eats a BLT sandwich). Don’t train operating companies realise that when weighing up whether it’s worth the hassle of travelling the length and breadth of the country, these irritations stack up. Would a lazy professional who genuinely prefers sitting in their study at home opt for a packet of Quavers or the ability to shuffle into their kitchen and eat a culinary selection of varied haute cuisine? It’s not hard to see why the errant and indolent choose the easy life.

Even before the pandemic, societal changes were moving in a direction that suggested traditional ways of doing business were likely to change

Of course, even before the pandemic, societal changes were moving in a direction that suggested traditional ways of doing business were likely to change. Yet, as a sector, to an extent, we didn’t help ourselves. Anyone who genuinely believes that the seats on some of the new rolling stock that has entered service in the past three years are more comfortable than their predecessors is as deluded as my son predicting Champions League football for Crystal Palace next season. If the seats were not bad enough, the view is even worse – I had a four-hour trip last week with the family, with seats reserved next to grey upholstery and without the slightest view of a window! Worse still, we even had to book our Super Saver ticket on another TOC which operates miles from where we were travelling because the TOC itself wasn’t showing that fare (only a rail ‘regular’ such as I would have had the nous to do this).

In terms of stations, I’m not convinced the quality has improved as much as we might have expected during the past couple of decades. Few have made simple changes to reflect societal needs. Simple stuff is required such as putting plug sockets in waiting rooms, improving the quality of Wi-Fi and better, more visible integration with other modes. Today’s generation wants seamless, instant onward travel, and not to grope around to find some grubby bus stop or wait in the rain at an obscure taxi pick-up area.

Talking of taxis, how many cab firms undermine the overall experience at a railway station with their decrepit offices and scruffy ‘controllers’ grunting as you appear and ask apparently dumb questions? Many taxi premises are closed out of core hours, as they co-ordinate their movements remotely and yet they don’t even put a sign on the door to tell customers; you arrive off a train and your heart skips a beat on seeing a taxi office but it is just shut and you’ve nowhere to turn. Back in the day, the presence of a taxi firm on a station was seen as a force for good in propagating feelings of security for customers (and even providing information regarding train services). These days are, in the main, sadly gone.

Catering at stations is also hit and miss – the major stations, of course, have the usual national chains and many of the smaller ones have local providers that offer a decent service. Unfortunately, the pandemic and the lower numbers of customers travelling by train has meant that many of these have shut, never to return. For those that still exist, their selection of stock is so reduced, they make the train’s on-board trolley seem like a veritable source of imaginative delights. Look out also for the ‘Scores on the Doors’ hygiene rating stickers at food outlets on stations. Many don’t display them, which is generally code for them having achieved a feeble score.

It’s the small differentiators that add up when it comes to a meeting that potentially could be done from home

As for toilets, well, I come back to the choice between home or ‘on the move’ – would you prefer your downstairs bathroom with its stash of old copies of Passenger Transport, or some freezing cold, facility with mold on the mirror, yellow and black masking tape closing off most of the sinks due to Covid and a cubicle that has a broken bog seat and a gut wrenching reek of ham sandwiches at the best of times? Once again, it’s the small differentiators that add up when it comes to a meeting that potentially could be done from home (though far less effectively in my view).

Finally, when it comes to fares, the sector is not unreasonably obsessed (as it has been for years) on ‘simplification’, but it neglects the fact that for a whole generation or two, it has taken absolute liberties with business customers. Fares have been eye-watering on peak-time trains when folk need to travel to meetings and the industry just shrugs its shoulders, thinking that the big corporate employers won’t even notice how much they’re spending. Now, rail has received its just deserts and in the case of business customers, it’s not a case of simplification that’s needed, but the cost of travelling needs to be exponentially reduced.

All in all, the industry has got to give serious thought to the proposition that it is offering to business customers, because this is the area that requires most radical reinvention. A national marketing campaign won’t do the trick – it also needs regional experts within the sector working with local businesses to forge partnerships, travel schemes and incentives to use the train. Unfortunately, the clout of the TOC commercial director, closest to the local market, is declining to almost subterranean levels, so, unless we reverse this, don’t expect too much success on that front.

For starters though – and I make no apologies for restating this like the most broken of records – rail industry professionals need to get off their backsides, out of their houses and lead by example. Or, at the very worst, decline those stupid, pointless Teams meetings and instead sit in your office at home and just have some quality time reflecting on why you won’t travel. Use all of these perceived impediments to making a rail journey for a meeting as the inspiration for plotting a future customer proposition that will get you back on-board. And whilst you’re doing so, please don’t act as though I’m a social misfit because I’m out and about doing my business. .

This article appears inside the issue 238 of Passenger Transport.

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