While safety, on-time performance and cost effectiveness made air travel the preferred mode of transport for business travelers, the new priority is on sustainability and carbon emission levels, and air travel cannot compete with rail on this metric. As business travel is coming back after the pandemic, is rail ready for business travel?
If we take a simple example of a trip from Geneva to London. By plane, the journey takes 1 hour and a half, produces about 100kg CO2 and costs about EUR 100. By rail, it takes about 8 hours with 1 stop (change station in Paris), produces about 5 kg CO2 and costs about EUR 200. Let’s assume the environment-conscious business travel favors low CO2 emissions compared to time and cost. What are the other points to watch when traveling by rail?
Air journeys including connection use “Minimum Connecting Time (MCT)” which build a contingency when connecting between two flights. Rail journeys don’t include MCT, i.e. an itinerary may show a 3-minute time between the scheduled arrival of the train and the departure of the next one, which is barely the time to change platform. This may work with Swiss railways that operate like clockworks, but not in other countries. Railways don’t track on-time performance of trains, in the same way FlightRadar tracks flights. Railways don’t check if passengers are on board and won’t wait for connecting passengers, unlike airlines. Railways don’t provide assistance in case of missed connections like IATA airlines do. These differences mean that it is safe to add contingency in the rail itinerary compared to what a website may suggest.
Websites may not recommend the best itinerary if they don’t search the right websites. For example, I searched a solution to go from Bremen to Berlin in Germany. The Kiwi website recommended a combination of flights via Palma de Majorca on the way out and via London (7 hour self-transfer from Gatwick to Luton) on the way in, whereas the direct 3-hour train connection was available on DB website.
Air travel has made electronic tickets and boarding passes a norm since 2010. For rail, electronic tickets exist at national levels but are not ubiquitous for international journeys. In a recent example I booked a train ride from Germany to France using the SNCF (French railways) website which required to collect the ticket for the DB (German railways) segment on a kiosk in a French train station! Not only the delivery of tickets should be completely electronic and mobile, but in case of changes the customer expectation is to receive the new document on the mobile phone.
The travel experience
The longer the journey the more important is the travel experience, for the business travelers who’d like to be productive. Forward-facing seat, wifi on-board, plug for the mobile and laptop, spacious table are examples of attributes valued by a business traveler. Assuming that the train cabin is equipped, the traveler should be able to book the seat and access the attributes.
While airlines have designed products for business travelers (calling it business class), railways still operate first and second, with sometimes very little difference. In another example, the fare difference between a first and second class on SNCF is 2 euros on a 52 euro fare, or 4%. The ticket can be modified with conditions in both options, bags are included and electric sockets are available in both options.
The disruption management
The longer the journey and the larger the number of connections, the higher the chances of missing the last train and ending up in a station closed for the night. While IATA airlines accommodation for the travelers who missed their connection, railways don’t have procedures in place. This is simply due to the nature of the contract with the carrier: the airline commits to carrying a customer at a specific time to a destination, whereas the railway simply allows the customer to occupy the car.
In a recent example in Germany, after all trains to France were cancelled for the day, I ended in a German train station at night, with DB offering to sleep in a parked train. There are no alternatives by bus or no hotel accommodation. Although the cancelations are not the norm, the business traveler must know that in this case hotels will be full and the only option to stay warm for the night is the car reserved to refugees and homeless people.
The refund process
The airline refund process is not designed for simplicity and automation. The airline fare may not be refundable, but the government taxes and fees collected with the fare are not due in case of cancelled flight and should be returned to the customer. I’ve not seen yet an airline ticket which can clearly show the refund value in case of a customer decision to cancel or in case of airline decision. This would not only add transparency but also enable automation.
In the case of railways, the complication is augmented by the lack of real-time traffic information. In my example above, SNCF didn’t know that their train stopped in Germany and I received a confirmation that the train had arrived in Paris, while obviously it was blocked in Germany. In the case of DB, the refund process requires to fill an online form and send it by post. The claim request is not valid without a “confirmation of delay” which is not provided by the carrier, defeating the entire process. In this case, I eventually found a hotel room, at EUR 100 for the night, which is unlikely to be paid by DB or SNCF.
I love traveling by train and live in a country with excellent rail services, Switzerland. But rail is designed for mass local transit, not for internal business travel. This article looks at the gap between the modes of transport from a customer experience perspective, trying to use rail for business travel.
It shows that there is a clear opportunity for rail operators to capture business travel demand in a time of sustainability-consciousness, until air travel deploys massive fuel alternatives becomes competitive from a CO2 emission perspective. Adapting rail for business travel means addressing ticketing, itineraries, customer experience, disruptions and refunds.
If any rail operators have already implemented some of the changes suggested in this article, I encourage them to comment below and I will gladly feature them in a future article.