13 April 2024

Getting UK rail on the right track

Harriet Berwick of SilverRail looks at what the UK can learn from Europe to deliver greater efficiency, value and comfort across its rail network   

It goes without saying that catching a train in the UK is not as easy as it should be. How would you feel faced with the prospect of using rail to travel from one end of Britain to the other? Maybe you might picture a crowded Euston, or a departure board full of delays. Rising costs, frequent strikes, confusing booking experiences and extended journey times are all factors that play into our misgivings about rail travel in the UK. Meanwhile, Europe is charging full steam ahead with superior customer satisfaction and a more reliable infrastructure, while we are all too often lagging behind. Why is this? 

The UK’s rail industry is, put simply, very complicated. The combination of market fragmentation, a complex retailing structure and under investment means the UK rail network is not operating to its full potential and is slow to move forward. In this article, we explore the current state of the UK rail industry and the ways in which it can improve to reach the levels that Europe is at, crafting unique passenger experiences that opens up access to everyone from the daily commuter to the leisure traveller. 

The challenges facing UK rail 

Between April and June of 2023, there were 1.8 million train journeys planned in the UK. This was up by 5%, compared with the same quarter in 2022, according to the Office of Road and Rail. Though it is encouraging to see more passengers choosing to travel by train, there remains a disconnect between what customers want and what they currently get. 

Firstly, the cost to buy a rail ticket is usually high. Booking and comparison website Omio states that travelling from London to Edinburgh would cost you, on average, £93. Looking at a similar distance of travel in Europe, for example Brussels to Frankfurt, it would cost you, on average, £77. One way to help is to improve the journey planning experience by making it easy for travellers to find best value fares, with tools such as Calendar Price Search, which enable customers to see fares displayed visually across a monthly, daily, or hourly view.

Secondly, fare complexity is an issue, with Anytime, Offpeak, Super Offpeak, and Advanced among the many options in the UK. A recent SilverRail report that surveyed 2,000 UK consumers, revealed that “complexity” of ticket purchasing proved to be the largest issue in train travel, with more than half (58%) believing that there are simply too many ticket options, with this number increasing to 71% amongst Brits, aged over 65. 

SilverRail findings also showed that nearly half (48%) of Brits favour purchasing train tickets at the station rather than via an online app. Investing in smart ticketing kiosks and high street retailing to give passengers an array of buying channels, which offer some degree of guidance and assistance, would go a long way to solving these issues, and ensuring every passenger is able to choose the best ticket to suit their needs.

To get to the crux of the challenge, we need to improve the passenger experience, as they complete their journey. Sounds simple right? 

Thankfully, there may be lessons to learn from Europe that we can apply here. 

Europe doing what it does best 

Europe is steaming full speed ahead with its rail industry and consistently invests into it. Just recently, the Austrian government invested €21bn into its infrastructure, set out in the ÖBB framework plan. Most notably, this investment also went towards promoting efficient travel that helps to combat climate change and encouraging passengers to choose trains as opposed to planes. To add to this, France banned short haul domestic flights when a rail alternative of less than two and a half hours exists. This measure was announced two years ago and, as well as being environmentally friendly, it demonstrates one of the true values of rail travel: that it often gets passengers to their final destination faster, and with more ease, than plane travel. 

When it comes to complexity, Europe has a much simpler path when purchasing tickets – there is no equivalent of peak and off-peak tickets in France. You only purchase one type of ticket for the destination you wish to travel to. 

In terms of answering the challenge of cost, Germany very recently launched a nationwide travel pass for just £43 a month. This pass allows users to travel on rail, tram and bus (with very few exclusions) and is just one example of how to successfully tempt passengers to increase their train travel – France has done something similar. 

There are approaches that UK rail can learn from – but it is easier said than done, and there are a number of barriers that stand in the way, not least those mentioned earlier in this article, market fragmentation, a complex retailing structure and under investment. 

As an industry, we should aim to have a domestic rail network that is fast and affordable, and can cater for the long-distance leisure and business travel markets. 

It is interesting to see differences in the way that Europe and the UK runs its railways. The end goal should ultimately be a five-star passenger experience that keeps people returning time and time again, while providing an environmentally friendly alternative to short-haul flights. This is something that, by and large, Europe achieves, while the UK is still playing catch-up.

About the Author

Harriet Berwick is the Director of Retail Products at SilverRail.

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