David Higgins
General Manager, Trainline for Business
15th September 2020

At a recent Phocuswright Executive Roundtable, Trainline for Business’ General Manager, David Higgins, and other panellists explored the impact of Covid-19 on the travel industry and what the future of mobility will look like. In case you missed the event, we’ve compiled some of David’s insights below.

What’s the biggest Covid-related misconception?

For rail, the biggest misconception has been about safety. Particularly in the UK, there has been a lot of nervousness about getting on a train. This is understandable; however, train operators have robust safety measures in place, which include cleaning procedures and alterations to services to support social distancing. In addition, on most routes people have the option to buy digital tickets (including through our Trainline app), which means they don’t have to engage very much at the station and can just get on a train.

There are fewer passengers, people are not commuting into London, how do you cope with that as a business; how do you re-engineer what you are doing?

I genuinely believe that Covid is going to be a facilitator to making travel smarter. Historically, people used to go to the train station and physically buy a paper ticket there, but I’m convinced that this crisis can now be an inflection point to change that. We are moving towards a world where technology can enable people, with an app in their pocket, to have a better, more informed travel experience and to move around more seamlessly. I see this as a genuinely exciting moment in time to move our industry forward and provide a better, more intuitive travel experience for people.

This aligns perfectly with what we do as a business already, we provide real time information, self-service capabilities and our goal is to empower people to make really good travel decisions when they are on the move. For example, through our Global API, customers can get access to and compare over 260 rail and coach carriers across 45 countries. At Trainline for Business, we provide access to that aggregator to TMCs, OBTs, OTAs, GDSs, as well as companies.

In a world where people don’t commute every day anymore, or even worse have been under lockdown so couldn’t travel into work at all, would a subscription model make more sense? Something like a Netflix for rail?

As we move towards more flexible ways of working, and people might be going to the office only two or three times a week, the current model of heavy reliance on a seasons tickets subscription base needs to be revisited. There are a variety of things that are being looked by the industry at the moment, which will move us to a more flexible ticketing model. That could be carnets, it could be flexible ticketing, or it could be an account-based ticketing model.

Giving people choice and the opportunity to get the best value is crucial when trying to encourage people to leave their homes again and go back to the office. Determining what the precise product model is, requires a good amount of customers research and understanding what the different use cases are. We at Trainline are working on some of these products right now. In addition, some of our rail partners already offer a version of that. In parts of Northern England you can get flexible tickets, in Wales there are some flexible products, too. So it’s not a thing for the future, it does exist already and it’s about how we scale that to make it available for the entire market.

If we think about sustainability, rail is seen as one of the transport modes of choice. And if we look at the Eurostar for example, it has already become an established alternative for travel from London to Paris. What’s your perspective on this, has Covid-19 had an impact, or is there perhaps even more of an opportunity for rail out there?

Covid-19 has further accelerated the momentum around sustainability in a number of instances. If we look at countries like France, one of the conditions of the recent government bailout was that Air France had to agree not to compete with rail where the journey by TGV takes less than 2.5 hours. A similar agreement was made in Austria. This momentum will continue, particularly if we add the elements around convenience of rail travel and more domestic travel in the short term because of the Covid-19 impact.

In general terms, the tolerance for longer rail trips is also on the up with UBS data showing that business travellers would not mind journeys of less than four hours and leisure travellers are willing to spend up to six hours on the train. All this is complemented by the EU’s Fourth Railway package which opens up competition in Europe.

At Trainline we are very excited about the future. Our technology is enabling travellers to choose between more routes, providers and journey options – all in one place, encouraging more people to choose a greener way to travel – and we are continuously working on further improvements and innovations.

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