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Roger Williams, Founder of Explore Catering and Chair of IRCG shares his thoughts about customers returning to train travel post-Covid …

IRCG members are continuously looking for new ways to attract customers to use on-board and station catering. It is core to our business and important for our rail company clients. But with the devastation that Covid has brought to rail travel, both have suffered a huge loss of custom and face an enormous challenge to get customers back on-board.

Additionally, government advice and consumer behaviour have changed, with people using cars rather than public transport and physical purchasing experiences being moved on-line for many. Effectively, Covid has reversed decades of progress in getting people out of their cars and onto intercity trains.

30 years ago the industry in many countries faced falling passenger numbers through a lack of investment and public trust in the train services provided. The tactics then were to highlight how long distance train travel was a stress free, enjoyable and relaxing travel experience and alternative to car travel that had crowded roads, lots of delays, roadworks, accidents and pollution.

British Rail’s Intercity, for example, used “Relax” as the theme for their popular TV adverts, with shots of great food being served, lovely countryside views, reclining seats and even customers wearing slippers as if they were at home!

It was something to be looked forward to but, while many will want to get travelling again as soon as possible, many will not and may be nervous of undertaking a journey that they would have previously thought of as risk free and exciting. For them “exciting” may now simply seem “frightening” and full of risk.

Certainly, one area that has seen a successful return of custom is high street catering, supported in the UK by the Government’s “Eat out to help out” scheme that offered 50% off meals and soft drinks Monday-Wednesday throughout August. This demonstrated that millions were prepared to go out of home to enjoy food and drink. The success continued from Thursday to Sunday too, which proves that it wasn’t just about reduced prices but about the experience.

While it’s obvious that the pricing reduction was a key draw initially, so too for many was having a break from lockdown, enjoying food and drink that they might not have had at home and, of course, the “theatre” of the pub or restaurant.

The train catering industry can learn from all of this and needs two very clear lines of approach – one for the enthusiastic travellers who are up for the journey already and one for the more reluctant travellers – those who are strangely comforted by their new found safety of isolation either staying at home or using their car.

Key to both demographics is strong engagement, enticing brands and offers and great hospitality at every point of the customer journey experience.

Importantly though, the reluctant travellers require significant and additional reassurance about safety, about the comfort and lower stress levels associated with long distance train travel and the enjoyment and sense of well-being that a well-catered journey on a modern intercity train can provide.

We need to prove there is nothing to worry about and we need to learn how to re-enforce that message through social media and by getting the enthusiastic travellers to be advocates for our services – to tell their friends, families and colleagues how great it is now on-board.

We need to remember it is not just about the actual train journey itself. It’s about clearly signposting every step from home to destination and back again. Ticketing systems that offer seamless access to menus and food travel options; recognisable coffee and fresh food brands on stations and on-board that people trust in everyday life and thereby increase customer readiness to use when travelling; lounge facilities that are easy to locate, access and understand intuitively what is on offer; feedback from the customer on their experience, what was good and what could be improved; using that feedback and big data evidence to underpin our future concept designs and product development and rewarding and maintaining contact with customers through multiple channels.

Just like in the past, when almost half of intercity customers only travelled once a year and for many train travel was still a mystery, we need to accept that post-Covid people will have forgotten many things about travel – for example, that they need more help than usual to navigate through the journey, that we now have new systems that they won’t have used before and we will need clearer communications to help them feel safe and cared for.

Many rail caterers are already able to offer customers PPE in case they forget theirs – packs with sanitiser, face masks and wipes that are either retailed or provided as part of a complementary service. Additional signage is also important where processes have changed such as queuing arrangements. The cleaning of toilets, handrails, seat backs, armrests and door handles is already highly visible – often by our rail colleagues – so don’t, therefore, forget that the cleaning of bar counters, trolleys, EPoS machines and other catering touchpoints that are in your control must also be highly visible to reassure customers that the right measures are in place. The same applies to ensuring PPE is being worn by staff. One picture on social media with the hashtag “Dirty Train” can undo all your good work!

This “re-education” and reassurance process will go on for some time, so we need to be patient and consistent in our approach. And don’t forget that our staff also need additional training to deliver this new level of attention to detail – they too have been affected and need extra support.

Covid has also changed the way we buy, moving many transactions via digital channels. In supermarkets this may have reduced the range of products on offer due to the supply chain and distribution being under pressure and being reactive rather than proactive.

However, on-board we have previously been able to widen menu choices more easily with online advance purchase or pre-selection (e.g. for special meals) because we can pre-plan loadings to accurately match demand. It actually helps us to control and reduce wastage and, with clever planning, advance ordering and Click & Collect schemes can provide a wider choice than in other food retailing environments.

Significant numbers of people are now using mobile technology, but some aren’t so we cannot expect all customers to use a new app – especially the elderly who may be dependent upon our at seat services. Likewise, restricting all transactions to card only may well reduce sales from the older generation, although there is strong evidence now that average transaction value (ATV) does rise considerably with contactless payment and the use of at-seat ordering apps.

Finally, but not least, the world is in the middle of a climate change emergency and railways have a great message about being a cleaner way to travel. It is a key advantage of trains over cars or planes and we should maximise our messaging about things we do to support this environmentally friendly mode of transport.

Eurostar and Great Western Railway, for example, have both recently managed to achieve “plastic free” catered trains – can you eliminate plastic from your packaging, reduce or eradicate landfill, increase recycling to 80% of waste, use low energy equipment, improve insulation of your facilities, buy sustainable local foods?? The list goes on.

Consider for example, if you were able to use filtered water on-board instead of selling plastic bottles, or if you were able to use glasses for beer and wine instead of plastic, to use china coffee cups instead of paper cups. Each has its issues and counter arguments, but everything we can do to reduce waste and carbon footprint is a step in the right direction. Similarly, working with charities is a great way to underline your commitment to providing a better world for everyone – one that would also help instil trust in your customers – after all “we’re all in this together”.

So, in summary, the way back to higher volumes of train travel is through joined up, incremental steps – understanding what your customers really want; explaining clearly what you offer; using well known brands; making the service easy to use through technology but without excluding any key demographics; delivering it consistently well and making the whole guest experience as enjoyable as possible.

That’s how you build back customer trust and loyalty that leads to customer advocacy and ultimately volume growth …


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