What can rail companies do to improve their market share ?
Analysis of Mediarail.be - Signalling technician and railways observer
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Online rail booking is increasingly ingrained in the ethos many people to the point where it's hard to imagine today that railways could do business without. Consumers are becoming ever more demanding of organisations and less tolerant of those that do not meet their expectations. In the Railway sector, this doesn't just affect the competitiveness and business performance of companies. With a large and growing number of people using rail transport, the experience that rail companies give their customers has wide-ranging effects that ripple across the whole of the economy. Those are comments of Jo Causon, chief executive of the Institute of Customer in UK, in the last issue of Rail Professional. The Institute shows in his recent survey that younger people are, on average, less satisfied with railways companies than older age groups. However, if they experience high levels of customer service they are more likely to recommend a company to another. Customer experience is therefore crucial to provide additional...customers.

One of the key element of the success is the rail booking by smartphone or by computer. But it requires a comprehensive and simple website, where the timetable asked and a panel of fares are on the same page. It requires also that a reset or a change of date of the journey do not require to reencode all data. You change the date or the train and directly, fares are optimized. However, rail ticketing is not without challenges, most notably in the roll-out of smart ticketing systems such as print-on-demand and smart cards. The roll-out of smarter systems remains fragmented and a source of some confusion for travellers. There are still not a truly european protocol being implemented across rail anytime soon.

The project MERITS of the UIC (Multiple European Railways Integrated Timetable Storage) is a single database containing the timetable data of 32 railway companies which is integrated and reproduced on a monthly basis. MERITS is designed to allow each railway company to have rapid access to all the data it needs to produce timetables, and to operate with one single source of data, thereby doing away with the large number of multilateral exchanges. But this project remains only a tool designed for railway companies, which decide themselves on how their information and distribution channels are supplied based on their own commercial policy. It's today still impossible to book a domestic ticket in a single hand from foreign without to juggle with each websites of each transporter.

Another key element, as said Jo Causon, is professionalism of employees, a set of measures based on customers' perceptions of helpfulness, friendliness and competence of staff as well as the fact to which customer feel they are treated as a valued customer. After the digital booking, the human relationship remain equally important. It's a great new for humanity, when most sociologist are worried about our 'individualistic' world ! The human issue comes greatly to the fore when problems occur, such as delay, disruption, cancelled trains or a long stop of your train in the middle of nowhere because the catenary or signalisation are out of service. We must think about the Eurostar get stuck  into the tunnel many hours in December 2009 because a bad 'winterisation' of the power cars, when snow was introduced in the electronic. The communication is therefore essential and for Eurostar, this episode has left deep scars in the ability to communicate. Indeed, in these potentially fraught and highly charged situations, it is essential that employees are equipped with the right problem-solving, communication and emotional intelligence skills to help customers, and deal appropriately with other employees in their own and other services.

It is however exact that technology and new channels of communication have created both opportunities and risk for rail companies. On one side, there is an opportunity to provide customers with timely and relevant information. But on other side, the increasing use of social media may expose the railways companies to hard criticism and derision, often by people who don't even use the company that they criticize, thus distorting the reality, as it is sometime the case with the website Trip Advisor concerning hotels and leisure places...

With other form of competition, such as alternative forms of transport (car pooling, bus...), it's clearly a commercial imperative to retain and grow customer and market share. With many possibilities like those developped above, it's possible to railways companies to capture new customers. But they are facing to a bad mentality in Europe, where customers use the railways services as a last resort and where railway is generally treated as the last choice. There is still have a long way to go until customers make railways as the first choice...