In a revolution similar to the rise of budget airlines, moves to allow train operators to offer &£1 off-peak tickets could usher in a new age of the train, say transport experts. At the very least, the scheme being piloted by South West Trains could herald a new, consumer-facing era that has been absent in an industry criticised for delivering an expensive, yet poor, product.
An advertising campaign for pre-privatisation British Rail operator InterCity in 1982 famously predicted Britain would embrace “The age of the train”. But in terms of innovation, product and marketing, rail travel has fallen behind other forms of transport, particularly low-cost airlines such as easyJet and Ryanair.
The lack of choice on a specific route means that operators have been allowed to “get away with murder”, according to observers. One says: “Consumers feel resentful because train travel can be colossally expensive. Trains are often delayed, dirty and old, and the level of service and refreshments can be shoddy.” The source says a tariff range with &£1 fares for off-peak travel is a good idea and would be train travel’s first “choice-creating” innovation in many years.
Meanwhile, European chief executive of FutureBrand Patrick Smith argues that a lack of serious attention to branding means there have been few chances for regional rail operators to present themselves as unique. Only Virgin Trains, he says, has achieved brand awareness, with its tilting Pendolino trains. The company is backed by Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R’s TV ads, adapted from various films showing trains carrying famous “passengers” such as Cary Grant.
Another source says train companies are aware of mistakes and are looking to manage consumer expectation better. “The age of the train” ads were only credible when consumers weren’t able to compare UK operators with foreign services, he adds.
Although few operators can match the &£14m Virgin Trains has spent on marketing in the financial year ending this week, there are signs of much-needed investment in rolling stock nationally. Virgin Trains sales and marketing director Craig Inglis says only structured investment can turn the UK’s rail companies into a 21st-century service and it is beginning to happen. “Consumer views on rolling stock are a little outdated,” says Inglis, who cites South West Trains replacing its entire fleet in the past two years, First Great Western integrating new trains and GNER refurbishing stock.
John Townshend, creative partner at Rapier, which produces through-the-line advertising for South Eastern Trains, including branded maps of London attractions, says marketing needs to be as clever as the pricing of fares. “The task is to get off-peak numbers up with deal-led advertising, and put prices and train times on posters without it being just about numbers,” he says. “Showing consumers the potential for a good day out and removing barriers to travel is the creative idea.”
Fare deals and promotions have always been available in rail travel and can be crucial in getting consumers to try a new or revamped service. Eurostar, now in its 12th year, used promotions for cheap trips and is now in a position to distance itself from such deals. Marketing director Greg Nugent says: “Marketing is about balancing business and consumer needs. Rail companies have ignored this with expensive and complex price structures, but if they start to look after the customer, it will work well.”