Train campaign not quite the ticket

trainA new age of the train is at hand, but there are doubts over whether the UK’s fragmented rail system is up to the task of delivering it.

The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), trade body for the UK’s 20 train operators, is poised to appoint an ad agency to run a £10m, three-year television and poster campaign promoting off-peak travel in London and the South-East. The agency is believed to be WCRS (MW last week), although ATOC denies a decision has been made.

It is likely to be the body’s most significant marketing push ever,but there are concerns about itscredibility.

In theory, train operators have a lot to shout about. Rail is seen as environmentally desirable – just this week, the Conservative Party has vowed to scrap plans for a third Heathrow runway and put the money into high-speed rail links between UK cities. With motoring costs soaring, the rail companies are expecting a boost in passenger numbers over coming years. Meanwhile, some of the UK’s worst performing train operators, such as Connex, have been stripped of their franchises, and safety and punctuality both seem to have improved.

However, peak-time travel is running at full capacity and is likely to get even more crowded, although there is still plenty of space on off-peak trains. The ATOC campaign will attempt to tackle this disparity by promoting a new simplified fare structure introduced this year. The ad campaign will promote cheap off-peak travel and try to displace some of the excess peak-time travel into off-peak journeys.

Fare shake-up

Ticket simplification came after accusations that the operators were running a confusing pricing strategy that misled customers into paying too much for tickets. ATOC commercial director David Mapp describes it as “the biggest shake-up in fares and ticketing systems in many years.”

A spokesman for ATOC refuses to discuss the ad campaign, but says: “Our punctuality performance is better than it has ever been. Safety is better than ever. We have been the fastest growing rail network in Europe, carrying 50% more passengers than in 1997 – we carry some 3.3 million passengers a day. But it means the network is creaking, in terms of the ability to carry them, because of the limited capacity.”

The first phase of ticket simplification was rolled out in May when all tickets purchased before the date of travel became known as Advance. The second phase was implemented last month (September) with the introduction of just two categories for buying day travel tickets, Anytime and Off-Peak, which carry restrictions on the date and time of travel.

However, there is still some confusion as Off-Peak hours are variable. An ATOC spokesman says “As a rule of thumb, peak is between about 7.00 and 9.00 or 9.30 in the morning, and about 4.00 until 7.00 in the evening,” but this varies according to the route. Another complication is the extent of weekend and Bank Holiday engineering works which shut down some lines making off-peak travel impossible.

Finding a new appeal

Some believe ticket simplification and ATOC’s imminent campaign show that rail companies are waking up to the need to find ways of appealing to customers. One source says the train operators should learn from Transport for London (TfL), which has introduced the Oyster Card – now a popular brand – and has run various marketing campaigns. “They need to realise the potential of marketing to make themselves more popular and bring genuine customer involvement. They need to find ways to make travel easier. Some of the TOCs could take a leaf out of TfL’s book.”

However, the source is doubtful that many of the operators will rise to this challenge, given that they are local monopolies with captive customers and thus have little incentive to engage with passengers.

If this really is going to be a new age of the train, the operating companies will have to look for more ways to make rail travel simpler.

David Benady


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