Looking ahead: 5 lessons rail travel can learn from Covid-19

By Josh Collier, Head of Proposition Rail and Ground Transportation, Capita Travel and Events

Rail travel has been transformed over the past twelve months, sparked by the necessity to enable social distancing and create a Covid-safe and secure environment.

Rail providers continue to provide optimal and reliable services for travellers that still need to connect for business. Lessons have been learnt and new ways of working adopted that solve many of the problems that travellers encountered long before lockdowns were imposed. Here are five things that we see having a long-term future in the industry:

1. A standardised approach to digital ticketing

Digital ticketing has taken huge strides forward, with many long-distance operators now offering eTickets across their entire range of tickets but there is still some way to go. Some operators still have limited or no digital ticketing capabilities. Whilst the problem of not being able to have a digital ticket on cross London routes or when a London underground add-on is added to a booking, remains.

The will is there but if the industry wants to ever fully remove paper tickets further advances are needed in technology to make this happen.

2. Mandatory seat reservations on all medium to long-distance routes

Many long-distance operators are operating mandatory reservations right now to control capacity and social distancing measures on-board and there's an appetite for this practice to continue. Allowing travellers to know when a train has sold out gives the piece of mind that overcrowding and social distancing onboard won't be a problem and breed confidence in rail travel again. While this is more difficult to achieve on shorter distance routes, as all long-distance operators are offering seat reservations, it’s achievable for it to become a permanent fixture in rail travel.

3. Flexible season tickets to support flexible working

Season tickets have been in need of an overhaul for some time, with ticket sales declining long before the pandemic as home working and flexible working was becoming increasingly popular. Plans have been ongoing for some time to introduce a flexible season ticket product, allowing a number of trips to be made in a certain period at a discounted rate vs the on the day price. At this stage, no plans have been released as to what this product could look like in the future but we know a decision is due in March that will reveal the future of Season tickets.

With the vaccine rollout fully underway, it’s important a flexible season ticket option is in place sooner rather than later, otherwise it will be a very big opportunity missed.

4. Removal of 'cliff edge' peak/off-peak pricing

Often, the first train after the peak period has ended, or the last train before the peak period starts are very uncomfortable journeys to travel on. With often a significant price difference, these trains are usually overcrowded and if you don’t have a pre-reserved seat, you're likely to be standing for the duration of your journey. The long-heralded Williams review has called for a full fares reform to take place to remove cliff edge pricing like this, which includes a new fares structure and helping to spread the balance of passengers across services would be very welcome.

5. Greater flexibility

The complex nature of lockdown measures and Tier restrictions has led to many organisations and travellers being out of pocket for trips they were unable to take due to changing advice. To support recovery and to encourage people to use the railways again, it’s vital the rail industry becomes more relaxed in its approach to ticket terms. Relaxation of refund rules on advance tickets in addition to advance fares offering more flexibility are just some ideas that would help travellers adapt, ensuring organisations see value from tickets purchased should advice change at the last minute.

If you'd like to hear more about our rail expertise and how we support organisations in seeing real value when travelling on the tracks, get in touch.