Media reports suggesting that free Wi-Fi is set to be scrapped on trains make me question if anyone cares about business travellers

 
‘Free Wi-Fi is seen as a human right’

 
Having written a column in this esteemed mag for 12 ½ years, you’ll understand that every now and again, the print deadline approaches and I’m scratching my head, wondering what to write about. However, as predictable as the annual fares increase in rail, you can eternally rely on the dim-witted transport industry to serve up a story in the 90th minute. And so it came to pass last week when the media got hold of suggestions that free Wi-Fi is set to be scrapped on trains.

It’s not actually clear as to whether this rancid suggestion around Wi-Fi is genuinely a proposal, or, more likely, that the Department for Transport put the idea out loosely for consultation, in its quest to shore up the finances of the beleaguered rail sector. Whatever the case, even to suggest this as a concept for discussion is remarkably naïve, particularly as the media have seized on it as another headline to show the industry as out of touch, crass and commercially backward in its thinking.

What would appear to be the case is that Transport Focus commissioned one of its fairly regular surveys to sense-check customer priorities. These surveys are well intentioned, but they tend to state the blatantly obvious that, whoopy-do, customers really want trains to arrive and depart on time. And, shock horror, when presented with a list of priorities, stuff like punctuality, reliability, frequency and fares were above, brace yourself please, free Wi-Fi. Stunned by this incredibly insightful response, it would seem the DfT, and possibly the Treasury or others in influence in rail, then used this as an opportunity to question the sanity of continuing to provide free Wi-Fi.

For the industry to even countenance the suggestion of scrapping free Wi-Fi would confirm to me that we are at our lowest point since Stephenson’s Rocket in rational, customer-led thinking and savvy around market conditions

For the industry to even countenance the suggestion of scrapping free Wi-Fi would confirm to me that we are at our lowest point since Stephenson’s Rocket in rational, customer-led thinking and savvy around market conditions. Self-awareness among some decision-makers in rail has always been an attribute in short supply, but this would cap it all. At a time when the industry should be exerting every sinew of its body to explore ways to attract existing customers back to the network and win new ones, this is the last thing it should. Thankfully, from what I gather, the rail TOC MDs, those closest to the customer and most knowledgeable about the market, are up in arms at the suggestion, but sadly it’s been a long time since they were properly listened to.

Countenancing the abolition of free Wi-Fi would be a dagger blow in a downward trend in the way that the rail sector treats business customers. Do you remember in pre-Covid times when First Class carriages were very busy? Back in these lofty days, the catering proposition was more varied, table service
was frequent and meticulous, there were decent fares offers and First Class lounges were in the ascendancy.

Like many things in life, Covid-19 was an excuse to get lazy. Many train companies phased out First Class completely, forcing those business folk who wanted space and peace and quiet to think and work, as well as a guaranteed seat, no alternative but to sit with the screaming kids, boozed-up football fans, or listening to the shrill hen-dos in Standard. Meanwhile, where First still prevails, you’re never certain the meal service is going to arrive, and the ticket checks and on-board service more generally don’t feel differentiated. First Class lounges have been cut back, along with the freebies, and some of them are unstaffed. The experience is as devoid of character and innovation as the franchise agreements between the DfT and TOCs in which their presence is specified as ‘committed obligations’.

I’m not suggesting customers should receive an apartheid-style service, but you’d generally hope that when it comes to the design and delivery of the proposition for business customers, that railway management and staff would be more sensitive to the fact that your lifetime spend as a premium customer was considerable. For this reason, when I was at British Airways back in the day, the more experienced and customer-centric cabin crew were always put in First Class where they’d spend an entire trip acting as personal guardian angels to each customer, eternally grateful to them for their high yield spend.

The service for those wishing to take a business trip has become destabilised even from a performance perspective. To add insult to injury, LNER recently undertook engineering works midweek meaning that a London-York business trip for a mate of mine took six hours. The justification in the media from LNER that this change in approach cleverly reflected the new demand patterns for rail travel, seemed like one of those attempts at spinning how innovative and customer-led it was being. In truth, it alienated those of us who rely on long distance rail travel to undertake our business.

The continued strike action, with no end in sight, is another blow to business customers. It’s easy to detect that the government is rather laissez-faire about the strike. There hasn’t been the opprobrium about the dispute that there was back in 1981 or 1994, the last prolonged eras of industrial action, mainly because folk are normalised to working from home while leisure customers can generally pick and choose the days they travel. But, for the poor business customer, it is awful. Furthermore, for us small business owners, it is worse. Every meeting cancelled comes at a lost opportunity cost to us. Re-scheduling weeks later when diaries make it manageable can, in the sales game, mean the moment has passed, time has moved on and opportunities disappeared. If we have no option but to still attend the meeting, we have to fund hotels either the day before or after (or both) so that we can remain able to travel. We’re also paying for our own travel, and the days of competitive fares are very much in decline.

Back to free Wi-Fi. Can you, for one second, imagine a hotel, coffee shop, airport or any service outlet these days, reining it back and levying a charge? Of course not

SME business owners are, dare I say it, those who, in my view, more actively want to make the journey. We want to, and we need to generate income, and time is money. Those in employment, just like those working for organisations in the rail industry, are, when the going gets tough, able to shrug their shoulders, work from home, take a day off in lieu, delegate tasks upwards or downwards, travel during the business day (in ‘work’s time’) and not worry about the cost because they’ll just get the PA to ask Capita to fix a ticket, or they get free staff travel. But the industry doesn’t really care about us.

Back to free Wi-Fi. Can you, for one second, imagine a hotel, coffee shop, airport or any service outlet these days, reining it back and levying a charge? Of course not. Can you also imagine other sectors being as incapable of realising the strength of their core product and its potential, in the way that the rail industry seems so often to be?

Very often, on balance, I choose to make business trips face-to-face, rather than online because I know that if I can somehow find a bargain, I can work on the train in the comfort of First Class, or indeed on some of the better rolling stock (normally the older trains), in Standard, and have a spacious, quiet area with good Wi-Fi and actually have some great thinking time and get a lot of work done both ways. There is also the prospect of a cup of tea, some nosh, good interaction with chirpy staff and waiting in a decent coffee shop or lounge before departure to catch up on my emails. It is time well spent and all whilst occasionally looking out of the window at the fantastic scenery as the train majestically traverses our lovely landscape at speed. What’s more, as I’ve oft said, the face-to-face meeting at the journey’s end (if I haven’t already had a meeting on-board the train with a colleague or client) will always be more productive than on Teams and the attendees are grateful that you’ve made the effort, rather than chosen the easy option.

How often do you see the rail industry play to the strengths, in terms of their marketing, of the product that I have described above? Marketing campaigns are few and far between and where they exist, they seem to be restricted to events, such as Valentine’s Day or Easter and they’re all about the leisure customer, rather than us morons who (have I told you this already?) are keeping the economy going, whilst those on the payroll are preparing for their work from home Friday summer barbecues in the garden or enjoying their 30 days of annual leave and paid bank holidays?

I recall several years ago, LNER managing director David Horne presenting at a conference that ‘free Wi-Fi is seen as a human right’ by customers

I recall several years ago, LNER managing director David Horne presenting at a conference that ‘free Wi-Fi is seen as a human right’ by customers. He was spot on, which is why the very thought that it might be abolished seems sacrilege. Yes, most customers have mobile data, but many have caps on that and are grateful for the opportunity not to eat into their allocation. For business customers (and those SMEs, in particular, who pay for their own Wi-Fi and don’t rely on an employer to do so), free Wi-Fi is one of a few (not many) customer benefits that together create a package compelling enough for them to choose to make a business trip and do so by rail. Take that away and ambiguity and uncertainty replaces the hassle of cluttering their already busy and stressed mind before and during a trip, trying to work out what they will or won’t get on their journey. They need to know that everything from collecting their ticket from a machine, parking their car, having a decent space at the station to do a Teams call en route, table seat to use the laptop, plug socket to charge the phone on-board, taxi at the other end, contingency if the train is cancelled or delay, is all guaranteed and taken care of.

Is it too much to ask for someone in officialdom in the rail industry to be presiding over a plan for business travel? You’d like to think that in the new world of Great British Railways that there will be a department that ‘owns the business customer’ and is responsible for designing an innovative, customer-centric product that exceeds their expectations – maybe a proper office space on board so that customers can meet and work conveniently and confidentially and with Wi-Fi that has had investment and been strengthened. The business travel czar and his or her team could also be dreaming up and delivering cutting-edge, targeted marketing campaigns, as well as doing corporate deals with big employers and focusing also on the needs of us SMEs. Importantly, they’d have proper insight at their fingertips around business customers in terms of current and future trends. They’d also under no circumstances allow anyone to interpret ‘stating the obvious’ research that shows customers think a train turning up on time is more important than free Wi-Fi and try and see that as an opportunity to engineer a cost-saving that will do more long-term damage than good.

Hopefully, sanity will prevail, and this preposterously idiotic idea will be immediately consigned to the bin. Even as a very regular business customer, let alone someone who travels frequently on leisure purposes, I’m insulted, that it was even the basis of a ‘testing the water, consultation exercise, at a time when I’m not exactly feeling like I’m getting value for money as a loyal customer.

 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 29 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector. He is co-founder of recruitment business Lost Group and transport consultancy AJW Experience Group (which includes Great Scenic Journeys). He is also chair of West Midlands Grand Rail Collaboration and chair of Surrey FA.

 
This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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