Associate feature: LNER is ready to play an important part in rail recovery
In the past 15 months, COVID-19 has created severe challenges for businesses and the rail industry has been no different.
Emergency timetables were introduced at pace to curb the spread of the virus, cleaning regimes have been enhanced and the complexion of public transport changed significantly.
Overnight the advice changed to use public transport for essential travel only, whilst rail companies kept key workers across the country safe as they travelled to work during a global pandemic. It was a challenge that LNER rose to and a responsibility its staff took seriously.
David Horne, LNER Managing Director, tells Holyrood: “When your job is about trying to get NHS staff and hospital consultants to and from their places of work, you know you’re clearly part of the national effort that’s going on to battle the pandemic.
“It’s not just about keeping the train services running for those who need to travel, it’s about doing so in a way that protects both our customers and our staff.”
Additional cleaners were recruited to the company, with a sharp focus on potential areas of transmission, and ensuring touchpoints were regularly disinfected. A reservation-only system was implemented on all LNER services to achieve social distancing between customers.
“During the pandemic it became essential for our customers to reserve a seat in order to travel on an LNER service. As well as assigning a seat that is socially distanced from other people, this system allows us to manage busy services to prevent problems with overcrowding,” Horne adds.
“That has worked very well, creating a safe environment for customers onboard while giving them reassurance of a socially distanced seat.
“We know from the research that nine out of 10 of our customers say they feel safe when they are travelling with LNER. The combination of measures that we’ve taken, we believe, have been very effective in ensuring the safety of both our customers and our staff onboard.”
With the vaccination rollout and the decreasing prevalence of coronavirus, the easing of lockdown measures got underway across Scotland and the rest of the UK.
As we return to a form of normality, recovery has become a key theme for governments and industry.
The recovery of rail is vital for different reasons. Firstly, it has an important role to play as we look to reduce emissions and encourage more people out of their cars and away from domestic air travel.
“I think we all recognise the harm that is going to come to our planet, our kids and our grandkids if we don’t tackle global warming specifically,” Horne says. “So, there’s an intrinsic motivation, I think, that many of us now have.
“But for us as a business, it’s also what a lot of our customers are looking for us to act on. Our research shows that, particularly over the past 12 months, sustainability and the environment have become much more important to our customers, and they are also top of our agenda at LNER.”
During the pandemic, LNER completed the final phase of the biggest modernisation of its fleet in more than 30 years, introducing the final trains in its 65 bi-mode Azuma fleet serving destinations between the Scottish Highlands, north of England and London King’s Cross.
According to LNER, Azuma trains emit just 4.3kg of carbon per passenger between Edinburgh and London – 97 per cent less than a flight.
Horne says: “We have set ourselves a target of achieving net zero ahead of 2050, which is the UK rail industry objective, and we’re making good progress.
“We believe in decarbonising our own services, so as part of introducing our new Azuma trains, we retired our fleet of old diesel trains at the end of 2019 – just a few months before the pandemic hit.
“Our new Azuma trains are bi-mode, so they have the capability to switch seamlessly between diesel and electric, which means one bi-mode Azuma can be used instead of running two trains across an electrified and non-electrified section of our route. As soon as we started doing that, we saw our carbon emissions and diesel consumption really start to fall.
“We used to have to run our diesel trains all the way to and from London using diesel even though the route between Edinburgh and London has been electrified for many years, so the new trains enable us to switch to electric wherever that infrastructure is in place.
“That means if one of our services is coming from Inverness down to London, we’re able to switch on to the electric mode at Bridge of Allan. Our carbon footprint has fallen dramatically thanks to that. Further electrification of the network, particularly north of Edinburgh to Aberdeen and the Scottish Highlands, would allow us to cut our footprint even further.”
LNER views its role in the recovery of the Scottish economy as crucial, particularly through supporting the tourism sector.
LNER has a big role to play supporting the Scottish tourism economy and getting people to visit Scotland again
Travel restrictions had been in place in Scotland from November until last month to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The tourism industry has been severely impacted by the pandemic.
Towards the end of last year, the Scottish Tourism Emergency Response Group conducted a survey, where businesses were asked how much revenue they had lost at that point because of COVID. More than half of all businesses responding (58 per cent) claimed to have lost up to £50,000, with more than six per cent of respondents saying they had lost more than £1m.
Horne says LNER has an important role in helping the industry bounce back this summer and beyond. He tells Holyrood: “We’ve been doing a lot of work with the tourism industry, where we really see the need to help tourism businesses across our route get back on their feet.
“Obviously in a normal summer, we’re bringing hundreds of thousands of people to Scotland for visits, and not just to Edinburgh but beyond to the Highlands and Aberdeen, and other towns and cities in between.
“We are working with the likes of the Scottish Tourism Alliance and VisitScotland to support the industry recovery. With much of hospitality being closed since March last year, we have been concerned for all of those businesses that have been closed for much of the past year, as we are of the view that LNER has a big role to play supporting the Scottish tourism economy and getting people to visit Scotland again.
“It’s going to be tough for the next year or two with fewer international visitors coming into Scotland, so we’ve got to work hard to get tourists and visitors from within the UK back to those places that depend upon the visitor pound.”
As it plays a part in recovery for the railway and the wider economy, LNER has committed to continuing to listen to its customers about the issues that matter to them, such as simpler fares and seat assurance.
Horne explains: “It was last January, just before the pandemic, when we brought in a simpler fares structure between Edinburgh and London as a trial.
“We have, over the past 12 months, invested a lot in terms of new digital technology and innovation for our customers. We’ve launched a new mobile app, which is very simple to use – with some really positive feedback from passengers and on the app store.
“Developing the app has been about trying to make it easier for customers to buy a ticket, to improve the retailing process, and of course you can now get an e-ticket on your phone if you wish and avoid paper tickets altogether. The new app enables us to keep you informed with live updates about any changes to your service and facilities onboard at the touch of a button.
“The innovative seat reservations system, which we brought in for social distancing primarily, has been received positively with our customers, particularly as so many travel long distance with us. It gives passengers the assurance that they will get a seat for the duration of their journey and can be booked up to five minutes prior to the planned departure time. It also avoids problems with overcrowding, as it allows us and our customers to plan in advance.”
The company also continues to innovate digitally to provide the best possible experience on its trains. It improved the onboard catering service by allowing customers to order food and drinks via a new app, which are then personally delivered by an onboard host directly to the customer at their seat. This complements the Let’s Eat cafe bar offering in Standard Class, giving customers the chance to stay in seat or stretch their legs when they feel like something to eat.
Horne says: “You no longer have to leave your seat and walk down the train to the buffet bar. You can still do that if you want, but the majority of our customers like the option of not having to do that.
“They want to sit in their seat, they want to read their book, they want to do some work and have some snacks brought to them, and our technology enables that to happen.”
As more people return to more regular use of public transport, LNER is striving to remain focused on the future, enhancing the customer experience even further to attract people back to rail and connect the country again.
“It’s about really ensuring that you’re offering an experience to customers which is not only easy to use but really reflects how people want to live their lives these days,” Horne says.
This special feature was written in association with LNER