One of rail’s most enduring features is the small slip of paper or card that marks a passenger’s permission to travel.

The physical ticket has survived the switch from steam to diesel. It has survived the move from mechanical machines to computers. Now it has little future. More and more passengers keep their ‘ticket’ on their mobile phones.

I’ll confess to some Luddite leanings. I do like physical tickets when travelling by train. Yet it bemuses me to see examiners scan a phone ticket and also ask to see a railcard. Surely you need proof of a railcard to buy a discounted ticket? And if the proof is good enough to permit the ticket’s purchase then it’s good enough to be scanned?

Anyway, I diverge slightly. We have a new railway operator, Lumo, which launches on October 25 and will run electric trains between London King’s Cross and Edinburgh Waverley, calling at Stevenage, Newcastle and Morpeth. It starts with two weekday trains each way per day (with one on Saturdays and two on Sundays), eventually rising to five.

Lumo launches

I chatted with Managing Director Helen Wylde in early September and it quickly became clear how important electronic tickets are to Lumo. Booked online, they hold a key to Helen’s goal of making rail travel easier. She highlighted what she called a startling statistic from the company’s research, telling me: “Over 20% of people travelling at any one time are suffering from anxiety”.

“That’s quite a sad indictment of society. Something that should be enjoyable, or at best neutral, reduces people to a state of anxiety,” she argues. “Anything we can do with technology to alleviate that pressure, make the journey more enjoyable – the way to do that is our digital platform”.

Helen cites catering as an area that rail doesn’t really do well. “So what we’ve done is introduce an app called ‘LumoEats’. When you book your ticket you can also book to have food delivered to you on the train from third-parties and brands you’d want to receive food from, M&S, Pasty Shop, people like that. That means we can offer a far bigger range. It also means less waste because if you’re associating that food with a brand, it’s probably something that you’ll eat rather than being given a bacon sandwich – it’s a Marks and Spencer bacon sandwich because that’s what you’d like. We think that’s good in terms of customer experience.”

Which sounds great. If it works. Anything less than perfect reliability will damage this good idea.

Lumo’s first trains rolls into London King’s Cross to take invited guests on a preview run to Edinburgh Waverley on October 21 2021. PHILIP HAIGH.

Why do we travel?

Moving to seat reservations, I ask Helen whether passengers will need to reserve to travel with Lumo. “In the long-term we will ask them to do that and there’s a good reason why. The most important thing you can ask a customer when they’re booking is why they are travelling. The reason is, actually, on any given day, depending on what mood you catch me in that is the thing that determines how I can best serve you as Lumo. So if I’m travelling for work, my mindset and behaviours are in a completely different place than if I’d said I’m travelling with my family on a day out. If I say I’m travelling with a hen party it’s completely different again.”

“You don’t need to do first and second class, you need to look at why people want to travel and then you can put people in the right carriage and you can treat them the right way. So if you’re a business traveller, what you want is clarity, to be left alone with a decent wifi connection and somewhere to plug in your phone. You do not want a stream of stuff coming over the tannoy which is going to irritate you. You want a light touch but be looked after.

“If you’re travelling with a family, it’s actually an anxious time, if you’re the person in charge. It’s getting people off, pushchairs off, wheelchairs off, it’s getting everyone organised. They need to be really looked after because they are anxious. So more attention and more information.

“And then the guys who are having a great time, let them get on with it but let them do it away from everyone else, particularly business travellers.

“So why should we reserve on trains? We should reserve on trains because it allows us to ensure that people have the best possible customer experience. I wouldn’t say ‘reserve’, I would say ‘recommend’ so we would recommend that you go in Carriage C for the following reasons. That’s then a customer choice which is to say I don’t want to sit there, I want to sit at the other one. That’s fine. It allows us to manage the service to really make a difference.”

That goes some way to explaining why Lumo will call its train managers ‘ambassadors’. On the surface it sounds a bit fashionable but I think the title is as much a message to staff as to passengers. I think it’s Lumo saying that it want things done differently on board.

Book direct with Lumo

It’s where the technology comes in. Not for its own sake but to make sure the ambassador can answer questions; to make sure a hen party doesn’t surround the business traveller. And to store the information Lumo has gathered about its passengers, what they want and don’t want. That’s why Lumo offers its best fares on its own website. It wants to encourage passengers to book directly with it. It’s the modern equivalent of small station booking clerks recognising their regular passengers as they appear at their window.

Lumo is an open access operator like Hull Trains or Grand Central. I ask Helen how she counters claims that open access operators simply cherry pick revenue that should go to franchises (and hence to government). I can almost hear her eyes rolls before she answers. “When we were given our licence, we were given certain places to stop. For instance, Morpeth was underserved so that was one of the requirements. So a lot of where you stop is where you’re told to stop. That’s fine, we accept that, we embrace it.

“In terms of timetable slots, we bid alongside everyone else in a fair and equal conversation with Network Rail and everybody else on the East Coast Main Line. We are not taking business off anyone else. We’re doing five services out and five services back every day, putting another million seats on the railway. We’re going to try and get as many as we possible can from other modes of transport. We see ourselves as being additive.”

On open access, Helen is positive as the UK government tightens its grip on rail by creating Great British Railways to manage tracks and rail franchises. “It says in the White Paper that government welcomes open access and they think we offer innovation. What we’re doing is all about innovation. We don’t see ourselves being out of step with the White Paper on rail reform. We’re part of the solution. Open access gives you an agile testing ground for some of the things we need to do.”

Open access is popular

Much as people grumble that open access diverts cash away from franchises, there’s no denying the popularity of existing services. Spring 2020’s National Rail Passenger Survey recorded 95% overall satisfaction with Grand Central and 92% with Hull Trains. Franchised ECML operator LNER recorded 91%. On the two other franchises running long-distance, inter-city services, Avanti West Coast scored 84% and Great Western Railway scored 86%. 

This suggests that not only are open access operators satisfying their passengers but they also sharpen competitor franchises.

After all, rail’s competitors between London and Edinburgh are aircraft, cars and coaches. Helen is keen to take on all three. Rail is greener than flying and that’s becoming more important. It can be quicker if you take account of the time taken to reach airports and then the waiting that flying involves. If she keeps to Lumo’s stated policy of having 60% of all tickets under £30, then trains compete with cars on cost. Meanwhile, the 4.5 hour journey is much better than coaches can achieve.

Helen tells me that Lumo tickets will be cheaper if booked earlier. She adds that she is desperate to extend the booking window from 12 weeks to 12 months. That’s a major challenge for Network Rail and its timetable teams. “What we’re aiming to do, both for efficiency reasons but also in terms of sustainability is fill the train,” she says.

If the key to all this is technology, then the Luddite in me must accept dumping his paper ticket.

A version of this article first appeared in RAIL Magazine in September 2021. For more see

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.