Opinion: Free-market cruise puts rail to shame

Opinion: Free-market cruise puts rail to shame

The amount of repeat business cruise lines get shows that they're getting it right, says Giles Hawke, executive director of MSC Cruises

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know there are certain subjects that always grab my attention. Aside from skiing and cycling – both big leisure interests – I can rarely resist chipping into conversations about cruising, customer service and the terrible state of Britain’s rail network.

With my office in central London and a home in Hampshire, there can’t be many folk who spend more time on a train. TV explorer Michael Palin, maybe? Belgian detective Hercule Poirot? The Littlest Hobo? I’m up there with the best of them.

Taking the strain

Unfortunately, my rail experience is rarely pleasurable. While Michael got to roam the globe cracking jokes and Hercule rode the rails solving dastardly murders over cucumber sandwiches, I just get to sit, when I’m lucky, forlornly outside Clapham Junction because of signal failure.

Still, it’s given me time to appreciate the finer points of how the market works. I’m too young to remember the dark days of British Rail, but I know all the stories about how this nationalised industry was ridden with inefficiencies. Of course, the free market could sort that out. Competition, that’s what’s needed. Erm…or not.

Privatisation has taken the rail network full circle. For example, take my train supplier of ‘choice’, South West Trains. It holds the franchise and is tasked with delivering a service, but there’s no alternative for me if I want to take my business elsewhere. Passengers turn up day after day, no matter how poorly South West Trains performs.

Economists call it a ‘coercive monopoly’. It’s a model that simply doesn’t work. The worst excesses of capitalism are forced on customers – a captive market that has to pay ever-increasing prices, and ends up with shabby service – without any benefits. To make matters worse, you’ll never get a meaningful apology or explanation when things go wrong.

Cruise market choice

Contrast that with the cruise industry – the model of which free‑market champions can feel proud.

Customers who want a cruise holiday are presented with a mind-boggling choice: ocean or river, short or long, formal or relaxed, traditional or modern, big or small ship. And that’s before deciding where you’ll go and how much you want to spend.

With the market providing genuine options for all, quality and service must come to the fore. The amount of repeat business cruise lines get shows clearly that, on the whole, we’re getting it right. Customers come back to us because our product is fantastic.

Cruise agents are a vital cog in this wheel, as well. Knowing which company suits your clients, giving sound advice and providing real value in the booking process can take the hassle out of what can be a complicated item to buy. Then they’ll come back to book again. If agents and cruise lines acted like my local train franchisee, they would soon have no customers.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep giving my feedback on trains on Twitter. I’ve got enough reasons, and the delays give me time to do so.

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