Global AirRail 2016 Conference Review

The annual Global AirRail conference took place in Helsinki last week (9-11 November). I went to see how Passenger Experience was being provided for in new and existing links.

What we heard about Passenger Experience in Helsinki

The conference was hosted by Helsinki Airport, which is actually in the adjoining city of Vantaa. With the double aim of linking the two parts of Vantaa and providing a rail link to Helsinki Airport, the Ring Rail Line was opened in 2015. With airport trips making up only 5% of trips on the line, the needs of commuting passengers obviously outweigh the needs of airport passengers. Kimmo Sinisalo (representing the urban rail operator HSL) noted that Helsinki has a very high public transport mode share, at 42% of all motorised trips.

One early lesson from the Ring Rail scheme was that punctuality was affected by passenger behaviour. As the trains are shorter than the platforms, passengers were waiting in the wrong place, so their having to shuffle along to board the train extended the dwell time. The operator has resolved to improve signage and ticket machine locations to encourage passengers to be in the right place but I was disappointed to hear that this was a surprise to them. Train stopping in different parts of the platform is a very well known issue in many cities, so it should have been foreseen: DLR at London City Airport has experienced the very same problem since 2005 and had to move its trains’ stopping position to reduce delays.

Arja Aalto (Finnish Transport Agency) used her presentation to remind the group that the quality of the technical implementation impacts the appearance of quality. To give the value of a quality service, the project included scope for interactive information boards, information walls and realtime information; however, it would have provided a more holistic journey experience to include the passenger experience and wayfinding overlay at this scoping stage, rather than as a nice-to-have, following the civil construction.

Since opening, the operator has already had negative feedback about the signage, I have to admit that I completely missed the entrance to the station when I arrived in Helsinki so it’s good that this is now going to be addressed. It is just a shame that time and time again, the final plans or wayfinding and integration are assumed to be a decorative overlay to be stuck on after the serious construction has finished.

On a positive note, passenger experience along the route was considered by limiting the height of the noise barriers so that passengers could still see the view along the way.

Passenger satisfaction on the new line was recorded at 87%, though I’m not sure how that is relative to other airrail operators – perhaps GARA could develop a standard metric for passenger satisfaction on these niche services. I would suspect that the punctuality score would be weighted highly on an airport train.

 

What We Heard About Other Airrail Services, Who Came to Helsinki

The conference heard from Vienna’s City Airport Train (CAT) that their app has been updated to make it much quicker to buy a ticket.

 

Though I noted a quote from Michael Forstner (CEO of CAT) that CAT did not consider itself to be public transport. Other presentations included one from Fraser Brown of London’s Heathrow Express, who detailed the key messages conveyed in marketing:

  • Speed
  • Reliability
  • Convenience

This contrasted with a later presentation from Eleni Brown of London’s Stansted Express who presented their key features as being:

  • Speed
  • Frequency

In response to a question on this, posed by me, as to why Stansted didn’t promote the benefit of reliability, it was clarified that passengers have come to expect reliability as a given. I think they are missing a key message here, as rail is able to provide an unmatched predictable journey time.

Stansted Express has also created another benefit – Price: the lowest cost ticket has reduced from £24 to £8, with a corresponding mode share increase from 23% to 28.5%. Their insight has shown that inbound passengers are more price sensitive so the low-cost message is shown to arriving passengers, whereas speed and frequency has been key to adverts in London.

One innovation developed by Stansted Express is the NextAgent ticket booth that has been put into the airport terminal baggage claim area. This provided a screen where a passenger can have a video call with an agent in a remote centre. It seems to be well received – I’d be interested to know if it is more popular with foreign visitors who may need more information on the multiple ticket options and restrictions in the UK.

When we’re discussing the integration of airrail service, we have to focus on the dominant operators, at London Luton Airport, Easyjet is 43% of traffic; at London Stansted, Ryanair is 80% of traffic so I would say that there needs to be more political and policy support to get these dominant operators to assist in shifting mode share onto public transport, an obvious way for this would be incentivised engagement with the airrail operators.

There were two back-to-back presentations about the introduction of new trains: The new carriage design for Oslo’s airport service was introduced by Flytoget’s Lena Angela Nesteby. I was very impressed with the detail that had been considered from finishes, to comfort, to passenger behaviour – this will be a nice train to use. I noted also that consideration had also gone into making each seat face the luggage racks, allowing passengers relax and keep an eye on their bags. I did think that it is strange that no tables were provided, given that plug sockets and wifi are included, but I was assured that customer research reported that passengers didn’t want them as passengers wanted to relax for the journey. Bonus points go to Flytoget for looking beyond the rail industry for interior design, taking aspects from airline interiors and referencing furniture design evolution.

It was perhaps a little unfortunate that London’s Gatwick Express followed immediately afterwards as the new trains on this service are simple modifications of existing commuter trains, with a little more baggage space. For an operator that has 2 competitors, both offering comparable journey times (Southern and Thameslink), the experience on board should be one of the prime motivators. Gatwick Express had made two noteworthy developments in the last year, firstly, the simple idea of handing out the clear plastic bags on the train so you can arrange your liquids whilst you have time on the journey; secondly, to refresh station signage to use Gatwick Airport’s signage standards, as the journey to the airport can be stressful, I think that this will enhance journeys as passengers can relax a few minutes earlier, feeling that they have arrived at the airport.

We heard from Nate Currey (RTD Devner) about the new A Line service from the city centre to Denver Airport. With no rail competitor, the service offer is based on price rather than speed. The journey time of 37 minutes is a result of the trains being limited to 79mph to avoid being subject to onerous regulations for ‘high speed’ trains. At least you save some money on your jaunt along the line, with a ticket price of only $9 roundtrip, versus $100 on Uber.

I noticed a change in this year’s presentations in that operators seemed to have grasped that some passengers wanted a multi-modal journey, for example, many attendees were aware that Uber had meant that many passengers now want to use the train from the airport to the central railway station, but then they wanted on-demand services, like Uber to take them home. Most operators seem cognisant that rail passengers aren’t prisoners of end-to-end public transport anymore. Furthermore, it was refreshing to hear many presentations on things that a passenger would notice, such as new rolling stock interior functionality, or ticketing channels. It was definitely a more delivery-focussed event.


Author: Liam Henderson

Liam Henderson