A scramble is on for the business traveller's custom, says Sara Pennington.
A smooth journey in Britain is something of a paradox, many executives might argue. The vagaries of the rail network, the increasingly choked roads and crowded skies at the very least cause inconvenience. At worst they can mean a missed meeting or business opportunity.
However, intense competition for the business traveller's custom within the UK is putting high stakes on a hassle-free trip. Improvements to the speed, comfort and convenience of service are promised as airlines, British Rail and car-rental companies scramble after valuable business customers. These refinements, of course, can be no bad thing for the travelling executive. But how much of it will make a real difference to stress levels and punctuality?
With a multi-million pound investment in its InterCity service, proposed by Dr John Prideaux, InterCity's director, British Rail is backing up its pledge to be the quickest, most efficient way for business people to travel. The bulk is being spent on the east coast electrification programme and the faster InterCity 225 trains which will bring the travel time from London to Leeds down to two hours and from Edinburgh down to four hours. The west coast line to Glasgow is also being upgraded, with the longer-term aim of reducing the Liverpool/London time to two hours.
More attention is also being paid to the way in which executives are treated. "Our aim is to be the most civilised way to travel," says InterCity business products development manager Graham Sherman. Poor catering, cleanliness and punctuality are problems of the past, he claims. Over 40 of the luxury Pullman trains, offering a higher quality service for the same price as a first class ticket, now operate each day with departure and arrival times scheduled to meet business needs. And the world's first railway business class, the Silver Standard service, is now available on some routes. For the price of a full standard fare (the old second class), travellers sit in carriages segregated from Saver-ticket-paying passengers and meals and snacks are served at the seat.
Perhaps a measure of InterCity's success is that in 1988/89 it became the only national, long-distance passenger railway in the world to turn in a profit - making £30 million. And more executives appear to be letting the train take the strain - first class ticket revenue has increased by 70% in the past five years. Now InterCity is hoping to sustain that momentum with the help of its new Frequent Traveller Scheme. For £15 passengers receive various discounts and points for each journey which can be redeemed for free rail travel, Delta Air Lines flights, Hertz car rental or a stay at a Hilton hotel.
British Midland, however, is shifting its emphasis away from rewarding frequent travellers with gifts such as silk scarves and crystalware. Instead members of its relaunched Diamond Club get "little extras" which are designed to contribute to the smooth running of the business day. Priority check-in at Heathrow, priority stand-by tickets, a double baggage allowance, discounts on Holiday Inn and Avis hire cars and a "tracker bag tag" to help retrieve lost luggage are available to those who have travelled with the airline four or more times. At Heathrow a 12-hour valet-parking service complete with car wash costs £14 to members. Advance purchase of London Underground tickets at airport ticket desks is possible, and a telephone service to order flowers, wine or gifts is also available. After flying 40 times, passengers qualify for an additional membership which gives access to Diamond airport lounges and a cheque encashment facility.
British Airways, though, unlike its domestic rival, will guarantee a backup flight for Shuttle passengers if the first is full. Executives with hand luggage only can turn up just 10 minutes before departure time and flights leave frequently.