The new train operator in the West Midlands is splitting its business in two. Here’s why that’s a good thing

Birmingham New Street station. Image: Getty.

It has always seemed to me that treating the British rail network as a single, unified thing was the wrong way of looking at it. That’s because there are, to my mind at least three different types of train service.

At one end, there are the intercity services – those that travel long-distances at relatively high speeds. At the other are local trains, which stop at every station, and which exist mainly to ferry people around within metropolitan areas. In between, there’s a fuzzy, less easily defined “regional railways” travelling medium differences at medium speeds.

These different types of train do very different things so have very different needs. On the intercity services, you’re more likely to have booked a seat on a specific train: service frequency matters less than speed. On the local ones, getting a seat matters less as you’re only on board for a few minutes: these are more like an extension of the metro network, so what really matters is knowing that when you turn up you won’t have to wait too long for a train.

In other countries, like Germany, these types of services are even branded differently (ICE, IC, RE, RB, S-Bahn etc.). Britain has generally not gone in for that, though: at somewhere like London Euston, you’ll find all different types of train service jumbled up together, as if there is no difference between a five hour trip to Glasgow and a five minute jaunt to South Hampstead, the next stop up the line.

All of which is a very long way round of saying that I am, tentatively, in favour of the thing the new operators of the West Midlands Railway network just did to their branding.

Until last week, local rail services in the Birmingham/Wolverhampton conurbation were bundled up with regional ones on the London Euston-Liverpool Lime Street line, and operated by Govia as the London Midland Railway. The resulting network was kind of nuts:

The extent of this weird network. Image: Nilfanion/Wikimedia Commons.

The local services were operated under the sub-brand “London Midland City”. This meant, oddly, that train services which existed largely to get people to work in Birmingham city centre had the word “London” slapped over them, but not the word “Birmingham”. Miracle there weren’t riots in the streets, really.

On 10 December, though, the franchise changed hands, passing to West Midlands Trains: a new consortium consisting of Abellio, JR East and Mitsui. That is splitting the services into “two separable business units”.

One covers the network in and around the conurbation itself, and is known as West Midlands Railways (WMR). The other covers the longer distance services that use the West Coast Main Line, but don’t run fast enough for Virgin West Coast; in tribute to the company that built much of this line, this will be known as the London Northwestern Railway (LNWR).

Here’s a map the consortium put into its bid to demonstrate its plans:

Click to expand. Image: West Midlands Trains.

And here’s a bad photograph of the map that actually exists in the world, now it’s taken over, captured at Birmingham Snow Hill last Friday:

Image: author provided.

The main difference that I can see is that the Crewe via Penkridge services have been bundled into LNWR bit. Which sort of makes sense, since Crewe is a bloody long-way from Birmingham.

Here’s that geographical network map again, only with some bad colouring in to delineate the two networks.

Image: Nilfanion/Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

You can immediately see why the split makes sense: the West Midlands commuter zone is now mostly served by the West Midlands Railway. Those longer-distance lines are treated differently. It’s not quite the local/regional/intercity split I described at the start, but at least it’s no longer pretending that the high frequency Crosscity route and occasional trains between Liverpool and Birmingham were arms of the same thing.

All this, I think, is good for the West Midlands region in a number of ways. One is that there is now a business which will be thinking about how to develop train services to meet the region’s specific needs. Indeed, there is already talk of extending the region’s network by re-opening a number of long-dead lines – the Camp Hill line, a route between Brierley Hill and Stourbridge, and another through Darlaston and Willenhall. This was contained in the manifesto put forward by the region’s mayor Andy Street, of course – but there being a company that explicitly sees its job as “providing train services for the West Midlands” will help.

Proposed new rail routes are shown in dotted blue. The dotted pink linke which meets the dotted blue line in the west is the proposed Brierley Hill extension of the Midlands Metro. Image: Nilfanion/Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

The other benefit is more nebulous: consolidating a sense of identity. One of the things that has held the West Midlands back, after all, is a reluctance to act as a unit, for fear of being thought part of (euch) Birmingham. Having a single rail operator, using the West Midlands brand and working with the West Midlands combined authority, may help fix that.

And even if it doesn’t, the new map looks a lot less silly than the old.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Here are five ways bricks-and-mortar shops can survive the onslaught of e-commerce

Another one down. Image: Getty.

Rarely a week goes by without news of a household high street name shutting up shop or closing stores. The rise of online shopping, or e-commerce, is widely blamed for the demise of traditional retail. Yet people are spending more money than ever – just not on the high street.

In many ways, the offering provided by the traditional bricks-and-mortar store – such as the latest brand to report hard times, House of Fraser – remains unchanged since its inception more than a century ago. They have been slow to respond to the changing social and technological landscape. And today’s customer expects something more.

The digital age has caused a shift in how consumers engage with their favourite brands – we can now purchase online with the convenience and confidence once the reserve of physical interactions. You can purchase almost anything you might desire online, have it delivered to your door within 24 hours, often with the offer of a free return and refund.

But the place for physical retail is far from over. As humans, we still crave a sense of community, which remains relevant to how we shop. Physical stores can become spaces where people engage with each other and a space where the brand has a unique advantage to engage with potential customers. Here are five hallmarks of stores that will survive these turbulent times for traditional retail.

1. Experiences, not products

The world is moving from a more product-based economy to a service one, with an increased focus on experiences. As people spend more money on doing things than buying them, the retail experience must stay relevant. People want highly personalised experiences and experiences which make them feel good.

Successful shops will spend time with and listen to their customers to find out what will meet their needs and make them feel special. This is a key tenet of cosmetic brand Kiehl’s store strategy, which is effective at giving customers a personalised service.

It’s important to recognise that people do not always visit stores to purchase; they can do that online and often shop around for the best price, often using price comparison sites. So the future of the physical store isn’t about the purchase transactions. It’s about creating events, experiences and ultimately creating brand associations, which help create memories – and loyalty – for the customer.

2. Brand advocates

The right kind of staff that are motivated to provide an excellent in-store customer experience will be another key feature of successful stores. Consider the Apple store. Here staff reflect the aspirational elements of the brand, through their appearance, a subtle use of body language, friendly interactions and addressing customers on a first-name basis. This all leads to a sense of community, reflected in the “Genius Bar”, which acts as a customer services team that isn’t sales focused – it’s purely there for customer support.


3. A place you want to stay

Colour, smell, music and layout are all crucial elements of the customer experience. People do not want infinite product choices. Research shows that too much choice can even leave us feeling confused and unhappy.

Then there’s the fact that you often know what the store sells before you go in and that there any numerous computations of stock online, which can be delivered to your homes at the touch of a button.

The shops of the future will focus on in-store design and ambience that make you feel good being there. Stores will reflect the brand’s identity, which has encouraged customers to enter it in the first place. But, more than this, they should make the transition from online to offline not only crucial, but exciting.

Not only will this make you want to stay for longer, you’re more likely to post about it on social media, creating an electronic word-of-mouth effect.

4. A frictionless experience

In-store experiences of the future will be interactive and seamless. This might be through music, art, technology or even coffee. Stores will have more of a hospitality focus than traditional retail. There will be no hard sell and you’ll be encouraged to browse, chat, laugh – even take pictures.

Successful stores will make you feel relaxed and comfortable, so that the prospect of a purchase is a secondary concern. If you do buy something, it can be done easily, without having to queue at a till. The importance of physical stores can be seen in Amazon’s move into bricks and mortar, but not in the form of your average shop. The retailer’s high-tech Amazon Go store uses technology to track your purchases, removing the need to scan items, let alone waiting to pay for them.

5. Rewards for your time

Shops will recognise that people entering their premises have very different motivations from ten years ago. People do not need to shop on the high street anymore so. when they do, it will come with rewards for their time. Not necessarily physical ones, but an enjoyable experience that makes you feel good.

The future of retail is about social interaction. Customers want to be entertained, engaged and emotionally stimulated. Physical stores must enable consumers to have positive experiences. This may be done through creating an element of surprise for customers, perhaps through art, in-store pop-ups or virtual reality. If stores can surprise and entertain their customers, then they are more likely to develop an emotional connection and keep them coming back for more.

Claire McCamley, Senior Lecturer in marketing, University of Huddersfield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.