Ask many current British rail travellers to name a rail loyalty programme and chances are that the first response will be ‘East Coast Rewards’. Ironically, the high level of awareness may be due in no small part to the success of the Save East Coast Rewards online campaign, sparked by the news that the scheme would not be continued by new operator Virgin Trains East Coast (see Business Traveller, September 2015 here.)
The campaign attracted 1,250 signatures to its online petition, but ultimately could not fundamentally alter Virgin’s decision, which itself met the Department for Transport’s franchise specification minimum. And today, Wednesday 30 September, is the final day that members of the former East Coast Rewards scheme can redeem their points, or see them disappear forever.
While the scheme ran, members earned 1 point for every pound spent on Standard Class tickets, and 1.5 points for each pound spent on First Class tickets. 255 points bought members a free Standard Class ticket, and 460 points bought a First Class ticket, for use on East Coast’s network stretching from London King’s Cross to Leeds, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness. Redeeming for four tickets at a time brought the average cost down to 230 points for a Standard ticket and 391 points for a First ticket.
Despite the Save East Coast Rewards campaign, Virgin’s communications have focussed on Nectar, their replacement for East Coast Rewards. They highlight the ability to not only earn, but also to redeem Nectar points on rail travel through the Virgin Trains East Coast website, as well as the alternative of collecting Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles. Coincidentally, Virgin Atlantic ceased operation of its ‘Little Red’ domestic air service to East Coast destinations Edinburgh and Aberdeen on 26th September 2015.
A further message on their website seemed to acknowledge the ‘treasure trove’ value of East Coast Rewards points. Indeed, some might suggest that the words ‘at which point they will evaporate and be entirely worthless’ would have been better appended to the final sentence, rather than the penultimate one.
So, what of the new way, and the earning and redeeming opportunities that it brings?
Nectar is the UK’s largest loyalty scheme by membership, driven by its association with partners such as Sainsbury’s and BP. Members of the scheme will be familiar that each Nectar point is worth 0.5p, meaning that whilst £255 of spend under East Coast Rewards would have generated one free Standard Class ticket – albeit subject to redemption availability. £255 of spend with Virgin Trains East Coast generates 510 Nectar points worth £2.55, at the advertised rate of 2 points per whole pound spent.
Alternatively, £255 of Virgin spend will earn 510 Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles. Assessing the value of airline miles is more complex but, as a guide, 35,000 miles would be required for an Economy return from London to New York, plus taxes, fees and charges of between £332.45 and £398.94. With Virgin Atlantic’s cheapest fare (without miles) currently being £361 return, 35,000 miles offers a potential saving of £28.55, and therefore £255 of Virgin Trains East Coast spend could generate Flying Club miles worth £0.42.
On this basis, Nectar points would appear to be the more usable and valuable opportunity.
A Virgin Atlantic Upper (Business) Class ticket from London to Barbados requires 100,000 Flying Club miles, plus taxes, fees and charges of between £517.72 and £621.26. The cheapest fare without using miles is currently £1399 return, making £255 of East Coast spend worth £4.49.
In this scenario, the better value switches to Flying Club miles earning, albeit without the unlimited availability that Nectar offers when used to ‘pay’ for rewards such as shopping at Sainsbury’s.
Whilst East Coast Rewards was running, those in the know also knew that the East Coast website was almost without exception the best channel for buying rail tickets for travel with any British train operator. Quite apart from earning Rewards, the site charged no booking fees, no card payment fees and, originally, no postage fees. There was also a useful 10% off East Coast Advance tickets, and the site allowed airline-style seat selection on its services.
Postal charges did eventually creep in, and the East Coast Advance discount quietly dropped to 2%.
Virgin Trains East Coast has maintained the status quo, ensuring that the www.virgintrainseastcoast.com website remains a more cost-effective purchase platform than other third party or non train-operator websites.
However, that’s not quite the full story. Three other train operators – First TransPennine Express, the newly-styled GWR and Virgin Trains (West Coast) also offer Nectar points for purchases made via their websites. Most pertinently, whilst Virgin Trains East Coast only award Nectar points for travel on its own services, all of the others – including Virgin Trains on the West Coast – award points on all tickets irrespective of operator. When the East Coast operator sells an open ticket for a route that it serves in competition with others, Nectar Points will be awarded only if no specific service is selected on the website. Select a competitor service, even when the ticket is also valid on Virgin’s East Coast trains, and no points are due.
Once considered by many to be the most ‘rewarding’ rail ticket website in the UK, the East Coast operator website has therefore now slipped to a position behind even its West Coast marketing partner.
The East Coast website still offers a 2% discount on its own Advance fares, and the facility to select seats on East Coast services, but for travellers wishing to receive their tickets by post, First TransPennine Express and GWR both send tickets by Royal Mail First Class service for free.
A Standard Advance Virgin Trains East Coast ticket from London King’s Cross to York, bought on the East Coast website, could cost as little as £14.30, and be posted for a total of £15.30, earning 28 Nectar Points with a basic value of £0.14. The same ticket booked on the First TransPennine Express website would cost £14.60, earn the same 28 Nectar points but postage would be free.
A Standard Advance First TransPennine Express ticket from Manchester Piccadilly to York, bought on the operator’s website, can be purchased on selected dates for £7.10 posted for free and earning 14 Nectar points worth a nominal £0.07. The same ticket on the East Coast website is also £7.10, but postage is £1 extra and no Nectar points are accrued.
Ticketing and fare variations across train operating company websites are myriad, however.
For passengers intending to travel on Virgin Trains on the West Coast, or on Cross Country Trains services, only those operators’ own websites offer airline-style seat selection. Meanwhile, all self-print and mobile tickets are restricted to being issued for single-operator itineraries, and then only on the relevant operator’s website.
Passengers travelling on South West Trains, East Midlands Trains and even some Virgin Trains West Coast services may be able to secure cheaper fares using current franchise-holder Stagecoach’s ‘Megatrain’ website, in preference to the service operator’s own site.
Amongst many other quirks in online ticket availability, ScotRail’s Club 50 discount scheme is only offered at scotrail.co.uk; Arriva Trains Wales is the sole operator website offering North Sea and Irish Sea ‘Sail Rail’ tickets, and Southern Railway ‘DaySave’ tickets are only available online at Southern’s website.
The demise of East Coast Rewards has not in itself increased the complexity of the fragmented British rail ticketing landscape, but the once stand-out value proposition of the East Coast operator’s website thanks to the Rewards membership scheme has sadly been lost.
From a passenger perspective, ever more research now seems essential to keep rail travel costs down whilst maximising what small incremental benefits do remain. To all intents and purposes, ticket purchasing has indeed become more difficult, despite calls from all quarters to simplify the national system.