As the UK embarks on its recovery, rail is ready to connect the country again
Amid a growing focus on the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, LNER's Managing Director, David Horne, explains the vital role of rail in re-connecting the UK | Credit: LNER
As the country rebuilds and people return to travel, LNER is innovating to deliver personalised, connected and sustainable services – encouraging people out of their cars and back onto trains.
The railway has gone through enormous changes in recent years, and as customer expectations have evolved, we have invested in better trains, tracks and stations to accommodate future demand.
COVID-19 set unprecedented challenges for businesses across the UK, and rail was no different. Emergency timetables and enhanced cleaning regimes were implemented at rapid pace and, although it felt very unnatural, we switched overnight to discouraging rather than promoting travel.
Looking forward, the recovery of rail is vital. Rail is the greenest and most sustainable way for people to travel around the UK, and at speed - it supports destinations and businesses, and it brings people together. We expect demand for leisure experiences, especially staycations, to grow strongly following the pandemic.
As the country rebuilds and people return to travel, we need to remember the vital part we all play in reducing emissions, including encouraging people out of their cars and off domestic air travel, and onto rail. Our customers and potential customers are increasingly telling us this is what they want. Research conducted by YouGov for LNER last year found that 27 per cent of people say the pandemic and its side effects have motivated them to adopt more environmentally friendly travel behaviours – more than double the amount influenced by environmental activist Greta Thunberg (12 per cent).
Younger generations are leading the way in this trend, as 48 per cent of millennials say they will choose to holiday at home as opposed to overseas.
Delivering the next step change in rail
During the pandemic, we completed the biggest modernisation of our fleet in over 30 years, introducing our 65 bi-mode Azuma trains serving destinations between the Scottish Highlands, the north of England and London King’s Cross.
We are now focused on delivering the innovations for customers that will attract them back to rail.
Our Azuma trains are one of the most environmentally-friendly mode of public transport. At present an internal flight expels six times as much carbon as a train. Azuma makes this an even bigger margin, emitting 4.3kg of carbon per passenger between Edinburgh and London – 97 per cent less than a flight.
We are now focused on delivering the innovations for customers that will attract them back to rail. By harnessing modern technology and maintaining a focus on customers, we can and are innovating to offer personalised, connected and sustainable services - delivering the next step change in rail travel.
That is not only our plan at LNER, but our ambition for the whole railway. It has developed from an understanding of how to serve a highly discretionary market, meeting changing customer demands and encouraging modal shift to reduce emissions and address historic barriers people face when it comes to rail travel.
Customers are also telling us that fares reform is essential. According to research we undertook pre-COVID-19, 55 per cent of people who consider taking the train for a journey do not then do so because they find it poor value for money. This is not only about price, they find fares complex and inflexible, and journeys overcrowded. Further hesitations about using public transport will have developed because of the pandemic so we cannot afford to continue to turn away customers with complexity. That is why we are working closely with the government to trial simpler fares.
We know if customers do not have a great digital experience, they will not be satisfied. In response, we are investing in innovation and partnering with start-ups to bring forward improvements at pace.
We have delivered an enhanced customer app and an improved loyalty scheme, whilst investing in a partnership with O2 to boost phone and Wi-Fi network coverage between Edinburgh and Newcastle. Our delivery of Seat Assurance, which gives everyone a seat reservation while protecting the walk-up railway, and our new Let’s Eat At Your Seat onboard food delivery service shows how we can improve the customer experience using technology.
Significant timetable changes afoot
Significant changes are planned for LNER’s timetable from May 2022, building on more than a decade of planning and investment.
Our timetable improvements are about levelling up the country, connecting communities with key destinations and supporting the environment by getting people out of cars and off planes.
We are working in partnership with other train operators to develop these changes, based on a decision by the Office of Rail and Road in 2016 about how to manage remaining capacity constraints on the route. We are on course to finalise the draft timetable in the coming weeks, following which we will then hold a full consultation.
As we deliver this new timetable, enabling our Azuma fleet to do what it was built for, we will remain focused on the future, developing the customer experience improvements needed to swiftly attract people back to rail and connect the country again.