Skift Take

This summer travel season could be enormously successful for railway companies if schemes they've created for the post-pandemic-era can capture travelers' interest. A big "if."

Big numbers have been traveling so far this summer. Airports are filling up again, cars — and traffic — are returning to the roadways. But what about the rails?

Many railway companies certainly need a huge rebound in passenger figures. Numerous rail companies have been battered by the pandemic from ridership to finances.

Just look to Japan as an example. During 2020 for the most recent figures,  passengers using services run by Japan Railways dropped 68 compared to the previous year. Two of Japan’s largest railway companies projected massive losses for the fiscal year ending on March 31: East Japan Railways was expecting to be in the red $4 billion (418 billion yen) while West Japan Railways was likely to post a $2.2 billion (240 billion yen) deficit.

And in Switzerland, the national railway company, the Schweizerische Bundesbahnen, saw a drop of 1.32 million riders daily in 2020 in addition to a 28.9 percent fall in passenger revenues.

But rail services are fighting back, putting measures into place designed to get guests back into their trains, such as the Société nationale des chemins de fer français. France’s state-run railway company has introduced discount cards in its quest to win back travelers it had lost due to the pandemic, like its new Advantage card and Grand Voyageur. The $60 (49 euros) Advantage card provides riders a 30 percent reduction on its high speed trains over a year while the latter is a soon-to-be introduced annual pass geared towards those who work at home but travel by train two or three times weekly.

Next door in Italy, the state-run railway carrier has announced plans to implement pre-trip Covid screening areas at numerous train stations throughout the country. Riders will be required to show proof of a negative Covid test taken within the 48 hours before departure along with their ticket, according to Trenitalia, Italy’s main operator.  Any rider testing positive would not be permitted to board a train but would be entitled to a full refund.

Further east, in Kazakhstan, despite ridership for the national railway company Kazakhstan Temir Zholy decreasing roughly in half last year from 2019, rail executives are bullish on their potential to increase passenger numbers. To attract riders this summer, KTZ has heavily promoted its changes and improvements, such as improved onboard cleaning, new linen in sleeping cars, higher frequency services, and renovated toilets, including the installation of new bio-toilets. Company executives believe the 2020 figure of 8.1 million riders could jump to 10.9 million this year if international trains remain suspended. If International services are relaunched in 2021, KTZ officials are confident that a number could rise to 13.4 million.

So what are railway companies in the U.S. doing to win customers back? Amtrak has taken similar steps to the SNCF as it views the summer season as an opportunity to win over travelers. It certainly needs to do so as in 2020, its ridership decreased by nearly half from the previous year while reporting an $800 million loss for the fiscal year. California’s three routes alone lost 50-80 percent of passengers and on the Pacific Surfliner, the U.S. second most popular Amtrak route, roughly 1,300 riders were on board daily last December, an 80 percent drop from the previous year.

But Amtrak has announced the relaunch of the USA Rail Pass, which allows customers to take ten discounted rides. Available for $299 until June 22, the pass “opens the door to both customers returning to our services, as well as new customer segments traveling with us for the first time,” said Devarajan Koushik, Amtrak Vice President of Pricing and Revenue Management.

The current price of a Rail Pass represents a significant bargain for travelers, considering it normally costs $200 more. When asked if the enormous decrease in train travel last year was the driving force behind Amtrak deciding to temporarily lower the price of the Rail Pass, Koushik responded the main factors were the enormous desire Americans have to travel more as well as the start of the summer season. “We’re seeing significant demand in the coming months as customers begin to travel again, and opt to do it domestically,” he said.

But the Rail Pass is not the only tool Amtrak is using to get travelers back on its trains. Koushik outlined other steps Amtrak has taken since March to attract guests, such as restoring daily service for long distance trains, resuming dining on long distance trains in the western U.S. and offering a 15 percent student discount on nationwide routes.

Eliminating Friction

And another action Amtrak took was making its products easier to purchase. Koushik expressed optimism that the newly issued USA Rail Pass will benefit from that. “We built a new pass that eliminates friction points of the legacy USA Rail Pass product including the inability to purchase the pass and book pass travel on the website or mobile app,” he said.

It’s premature to call the relaunch of the Rail Pass a success. But Koushik is confident about about its potential to sell well. “During our two day ‘soft launch, we saw our first rail pass purchases — and also our first segment traveled. This level of early engagement is encouraging,” he said.

While general ridership numbers have shown positive signs for Amtrak as ridership surpassed 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels during the travel period with the Memorial Day holiday, it’s a different story for Brightline Florida. The privately run rail company — which currently only operates trains in the southern part of the state — has been shut down since the start of the pandemic. But Ben​ Porritt, the Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs for the Miami-based operator, sees brighter days ahead. As Brightline Florida has been surveying passholders to gather information about features they would like to see, he already has schemes in mind that he feels can be successful in getting customers back when it resumes operations in several months.

“We’re already planning to offer a ‘first-ride free’ program and ‘kids ride free’ when we relaunch our trains later this year,” Porritt said.

Those are features customers will surely love. But when service resumes, will Brightline enact measures that will help customers dealing with any changing health circumstances — like the SNCF making permanent their pandemic-era decision to allow ticket refunds and exchanges up to three days prior to travel. Porritt doesn’t envision any new significant changes in that regard, stating the company already permits guests to automatically rebook if they miss a train. He added Brightline has used its downtime to enhance customer facing technology like its app and website.

Porritt is not worried about any challenges his company (which has plans to expand service to Orlando in 2022) might face in boosting ridership. “We’re optimistic that our South Florida community is ready to re-board the Brightline,” he said.

Considering the large number of people traveling this summer, that certainty isn’t misguided confidence.

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Tags: amtrak, sncf, summer travel, trains, transportation

Photo credit: One of France's high-speed tracks at Gare de l'Est, a major railway station in Paris Nelso Silva / An Amtrak train

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