Guest Post: Putting rail at the top of SME agendas

Guest Post: Putting rail at the top of SME agendas

Andrew Cruttenden, general manager of Trainline Partner Solutions, explains that it'll be a bumper year for business travel

2024 has the potential to be a significant year for rail business travel. Across the business travel sector, volumes are continuing to grow again post-pandemic, with the industry riding a “wave of momentum”, as noted by the GBTA. Our own research at Trainline Partner Solutions echoes these expectations for UK businesses, particularly among SMEs. A survey we conducted among business travel decision makers for UK SMEs found that 9 out of 10 expect employees to travel more for business this year, and that corporate travel budgets will increase.

However, this return of business travel comes during an era of heightened sustainability concerns. As a result, our research also found that for these SME decision makers, how to deliver lower carbon business travel is a growing consideration. Over 80% said their organisations intend to bolster support this year for employees to choose lower carbon travel options. Given the expected higher demand for travel, almost half expect their organisation will increase their use of rail.

This growth in demand presents a huge opportunity for the business travel industry, but it also means we need to lean in to what our customers are telling us.

What’s driving a modal shift to rail? 

There are a few driving factors behind the growing importance of lower carbon travel for SMEs. We’re firstly seeing a growing raft of legislation and regulations that are pushing lower carbon travel to the fore. The EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive entered into force on 5th January, requiring companies to report on scope 3 emissions, including from business travel. As well as major European companies, it’s also relevant for UK-based businesses with substantial operations in Europe.

We’ve also seen a regulatory push to change travel habits from certain European governments. French lawmakers last year passed a ban on short-haul flights where a rail alternative of 2.5 hours is an option, and Denmark has introduced a green tax on all flights departing from the country.

This changing regulatory landscape that SMEs are operating in isn’t the only growing pressure they face. Society is waking up to the grim reality of climate change, and this means many people will increasingly expect their employer to act responsibly. That means businesses must prioritise aligning themselves with employee preferences. Research we conducted last year among UK business travellers demonstrated a clear link between sustainability concerns and the ongoing ‘talent war’ - over half (53%) of respondents said they’d prioritise working for an employer who supported low-carbon travel, over a competitor who did not. That’s the kind of issue competitive employers can’t afford to ignore.

Making rail an easy, attractive choice

If we’re to capitalise on this need for lower carbon travel and realise the potential market that business travel offers for our industry, we need to make it easier and more attractive for travellers to choose rail.

A crucial step is to enhance the customer journey. Adopting a more consumer-centric approach to the booking experience will both simplify and enhance the attractiveness of rail. This is about making sure companies and travellers can enjoy the same easy experiences they get as consumers, and have access to beneficial features such as multi-modal booking and fare splitting. For SMEs, where travel booking is often done in-house, these features can be transformative in providing them with easier, cheaper rail travel.

To ensure we can offer these features at large, our industry needs to embrace more collaboration and open AIs. This is what makes these features possible, by opening up access to the best routes, fares and journey times from different carriers - and across multiple markets, when we’re looking at travel both within the UK and to Europe.

2024 ultimately holds much potential for the rail industry to accelerate the uptake of lower carbon business travel in the UK. As an industry, we must work together to make rail the travel mode of choice for UK SMEs.