SNCF, the new owners of Loco2 since we sold it in 2017 have announced that the name Loco2 will disappear on Wednesday 6th November.
Although my co-founder (and sister) Kate and I stopped working there last year, it’s inevitably emotional that the name itself is now going.
What follows are my final thoughts on the company that meant so much to me for so many years.
Kate came up with the idea for Loco2 in 2006 – a “low carbon travel company”, with the name a play on “low CO2” and locomotive travel.
Since its inception we tried to get others to care about finding alternatives to flying as part of the necessary shift to a low carbon future.
For the first few years our low carbon message was front-and-centre of our communications strategy, but we found that lots of people simply didn’t get it (or didn’t care). For lots of customers it was an unnecessary barrier to booking train tickets.
When we shifted focus to the ease of the rail booking service we were providing, we had a simpler message and grew more quickly.
But for a substantial minority who were interested in our core environmental mission, the name was a clear and clever symbol of our raison d’être.
Although we were frequently buoyed by the love and support of those dedicated customers who shared in our environmental mission, for many years the lack of wider acknowledgement of the need to tackle emissions from flying was hugely demoralising.
We would often receive queries about how to take trains from airports as part of flight-based journeys that could easily be made entirely by rail.
And we faced an astonishing lack of action even from within the rail industry (I lost count of the number of times I would turn up to a conference in Europe by train with other attendees shocked that I hadn’t flown).
In this context, the recent explosion of public awareness about the severity of the climate crisis has been a big relief.
Finally I am not the only person in my friendship group talking about alternatives to flying, and other people are initiating conversations that previously I would have to sidestep for the sake of avoiding awkwardness.
This has culminated over the past few months with public support for Extinction Rebellion protests in London, and with Greta Thunberg crossing the Atlantic by zero carbon yacht to attend the UN climate conference in New York, as millions of students strike worldwide.
I’ve watched as the idea of flying less has moved from the periphery of public debate to centre stage, with even a major airline essentially encouraging people to buy fewer tickets in a major advertising campaign.
All this has meant increased press coverage for Loco2 since I left, and it’s been pleasing to watch from the sidelines as the marketing team tweet using hashtags like #thegretaeffect as they promote how easy it is to book using the technology platform we spent so long building.
With all this in mind it’s sad that the name Loco2 is going at just the time when awareness of climate change (and the role that flying plays) is so high.
I’ve no doubt that climate-focused communications will continue under Rail Europe, but it feels disappointing that the brand we built to shift plane to train travel is being retired.
That said, it was always going to be hard to conjure the magic of the founding team after Kate and I had left so perhaps it’s for the best that Loco2 won’t continue any longer without us.
It’s worth delving into the history of the Rail Europe brand in order to understand the decision in its full context.
Before we launched Loco2 in 2011, Rail Europe was one of the only options for booking European train travel online and it was often very frustrating.
As a seemingly pan-European website it was confusing that raileurope.co.uk could only reliably book French trains. Customers often felt they had been duped when they discovered that going directly to national rail operators offered more choice and cheaper prices.
In 2012 SNCF took the decision to retire the Rail Europe brand in the UK and consolidate everything under its French Voyages-SNCF brand (which has since been renamed “Oui-SNCF”). Rail Europe as a brand survived, but only to serve customers from outside Europe.
At the time this felt like a logical decision because customers were finding ways to get around the shortfalls of Rail Europe (thanks in large part to the very thorough advice offered by the Man in Seat 61).
It was also a huge gift to Loco2 – the most widely-recognised name on the market disappeared overnight just as we were launching.
Between 2012 and 2017 the market changed substantially, with Loco2 playing a modest but not insignificant part in the shift (alongside many other factors, not least EU competition law and related regulatory developments).
National rail operators no longer held a monopoly on selling the cheapest fares, and it became possible to buy at the same price conveniently from many websites and apps, starting with Loco2 and CapitaineTrain (later bought and renamed by Trainline).
Choosing to resurrect Rail Europe for UK customers may work for those not aware of the brand’s history, but for the many customers who have been booking European rail for a decade or more, the troubled past may be hard to shake.
I’m very proud that Loco2’s excellent technology will now form the backbone of Rail Europe going forward, and that will make it a great place to book tickets. Hopefully the talented marketing team can maintain an effective dialogue with customers to make the transition as smooth as possible.
Despite the disappearance of the name Loco2, I still intend to book my tickets with Rail Europe. Apart from the branding, the booking experience will be familiar and simple.
For those thinking about switching, the main alternatives to Rail Europe will be Trainline, previously owned by huge US private equity firm KKR until the stock market float in July, and Omio (who started life as “GoEuro”), funded by a huge investment from Goldman Sachs.
In this highly competitive environment (and in the context of Brexit, where the choice looks increasingly stark between a free market US-style or state-backed European-style economy), I’ll be proud to continue booking with a company owned by the French national rail operator.
Related to the competitive situation, another challenge that the new brand will face is how to market an exciting development that was recently launched by Loco2 – PriceHack.
Although I am incredibly proud of what we achieved at Loco2, it pains me that we weren’t able to reduce the cost of trains so that price wasn’t a factor when asking people to switch away from planes.
The promise of PriceHack (along with ideas for appropriate government action to make flying more expensive) gives me hope that all is not lost on this front.
This brilliant new feature allows users to easily find and book split-ticket fares in the UK (making it significantly cheaper than Trainline or Omio for most UK journeys).
For customers who understand what split ticketing is, it works smoothly, and in the few months since it has launched I have already saved hundreds of pounds using it.
However, the name “Rail Europe” doesn’t really convey that I can book UK-only journeys, and indeed the brand is generally geared towards less well-informed international customers.
I therefore hope that there are plans to market PriceHack separately so that it doesn’t simply get buried.
So what’s next for me?
Since I stopped working at Loco2 in late 2018, it’s been a privilege to get involved in two new projects, both relevant to the climate-focused goals of Loco2:
Riding Sunbeams is a new community-focused venture aiming to power railways with solar PV electricity, where I’ve been non-executive Chair since April. Our first demonstration unit started producing power in August and there are exciting times ahead for 2020.
Along with my good friend and Loco2 technical co-founder Eugene Bolskahov, we’ve been helping Flight Free develop a new website which just went live (check out the Why Flight Free page in particular).
If you want to stay abreast of what I’m doing in the post-Loco2 world, I’ll be posting occasional updates here (probably every month or so depending on whether anything interesting is happening), so please sign up for email updates.