Data insights 2: Getting more people choosing trains

At SilverRail, we want to play our role in helping the rail industry recover from the pandemic and encourage more people to take trains.

In order to gain an understanding of the attitudes and likely behaviours of customers, we conducted a survey of 3000 travellers across the UK, France and Sweden – three countries where SilverRail has major operations. In the first chapter, we looked at how Covid has and will continue to impact the number of people taking trains and the likely impact of enforced social distancing and proof of vaccination. Here, we look more generally at the factors which would make travellers choose the train more, both domestically and internationally.

Here’s what they told us.

Despite the increased awareness around rail’s environmental benefits, personified by Greta Thurnberg and the train-bragging (‘tagskyrt’) movement, British and French respondents in every age group prefer cars over trains.  And more than a quarter of all respondents prefer planes. Cost is by far the most critical factor in determining transport choice, with reliability, flexibility, speed and ease-of-booking also influential.

Overall, in our survey group, we found that 26% of respondents said they prefer trains over cars, 28% were neutral, while 46% prefer cars. This could be the result of Coronavirus. A recent Capgemini report found that the pandemic has moved people towards car ownership and away from mass transport as cars are seen as ‘the best way to safeguard safety and physical well-being’.

When we break it down by country, in the UK and France, more people prefer cars over trains, whilst the opposite is true in Sweden.

Now let’s look at trains versus planes.

Interestingly, fewer respondents preferred planes over trains compared with cars over trains. Only 16% ‘strongly preferred planes’ compared with 32% who ‘strongly preferred cars’. Whilst Sweden is still more pro-train compared with UK and France in regard to taking the plane, a greater proportion of British and French prefer trains to planes compared with trains to cars (70% versus 52% respectively).

It’s worth noting that these answers are likely to be influenced by the type of travel, in that trains are more likely to be used for commuting, cars for visiting family and friends, especially if it is a family travelling. However, it’s still a useful exercise to get this general snapshot of attitudes towards transport mode.

So what is holding people back from choosing trains?

We asked all respondents whether they would choose trains more often when travelling domestically if trains were faster, more reliable or cleaner; or if tickets were cheaper, more flexible or easier to buy. We asked the same question for international travel.

Interestingly, there is very little difference across countries in all categories.

Cost is clearly the most significant factor which is preventing more people from taking the train domestically. 32%, 33% and 29% of respondents said that cheaper tickets would get them using rail in the UK, France and Sweden respectively.

This response mirrors the results of a recent Twitter poll in which Martin Lewis, the founder of Money Saving Expert, asked thousands of people whether they’d support a ban on all UK domestic flights, where a train can do the trip in under 2.5 hours. Whilst 79% were in favour, the associated comments were revealing.

The vast majority of the hundreds of comments state that trains need to be significantly cheaper than they are today if the policy of banning domestic flights in favour of rail is to have its desired effect. Otherwise we’ll end up with just more people driving cars on our roads.

Our study shows that speed, reliability, flexibility, cleanliness and ease-of-booking are also factors which would get more people on board (in order of preference).

When we asked the same question for international travel, the responses were similar.

Price is the primary factor in putting people off from taking the train for British (28%), French (28%) and Swedish (22%) respondents.

There is an interesting difference in the factors that influence domestic and international travel.

Ease of buying tickets is more important to people travelling abroad (11%) compared with those travelling on home soil (7%). This could relate to the difficulty in journey planning and buying single transnational tickets.

What can the industry do to respond?

To get more travellers on trains, it’s clear that tickets need to get cheaper. One way of doing this would be to accelerate liberalisation, a key pillar of the Fourth Railway Package, which could lower prices as a result of greater competition. We’ve already seen new entrants in Europe like FlixTrain and national rail carriers like SNCF and Trenitalia make plans to operate trains on foreign soil.

In the UK, the structural reforms outlined in the Williams-Shapps plan are aimed at making the railways less fragmented, complicated and expensive to run, with the objective of providing better value for money to travellers. The recent launch of Flexi-Seasons is aimed at offering greater freedom and value to commuters, who travel to work twice or three times a week as a result of the shift to working-from-home.

Aside from reducing ticket prices, the industry could do a better job of providing relative price and journey duration information on websites so that travellers can make more informed decisions. There are many instances where trains are cheaper than planes (back in late 2019, we compared the prices of trains versus planes on five European routes and found that, on average, trains were cheaper on four of them). Where relevant, these price benefits should be made clearer to travellers when booking trains. Displaying price information in calendar view or by time of day (like we do for LNER) also helps price-conscious travellers make better decisions.

Secondly, given speed is the second most important factor for domestic and international travellers, it would be useful to calculate the true time of travel for planes versus trains. Journey Planners should account for the time it takes both to get to and from an airport (they’re usually not in city-centres) and in getting through check-in and security. In many instances, the time premium associated with planes would disappear.

Lastly, to remove one of the friction points of international travel, it should be easy for travellers to plan transnational journeys and then book the trip on a single ticket. We’ve written before about the importance of harmonising timetables and integrated ticketing to help make this a reality.

Look out for our next report on the wider macro trends that present both opportunities and threats to train travel.

Sign up to our bulletin

To get these data insights delivered directly to your inbox, you can sign up to our bulletin here.