It is vital that the post-Williams railway is responsive to the ultimate customer – the people who travel by trains for work or leisure

‘New Rail’ must listen and respond to passengers

 

“Maybe there should not be so many fingers in the pie and maybe a specific person, body, group, that if there are issues they can be held accountable for it.”
Commuter, Cardiff

“If you’re putting out for tender for other companies to come in, then they’re always looking to improve and outbid each other, in quality, price, whatever it may be.”
Leisure traveller, Glasgow

“If it’s a private company there, there’s always going to be that number one goal, to drive profit. Unless it’s nationalised, I can’t really see things changing that much.”
Commuter, Glasgow

These are quotes from passengers who took part in our focus groups about the structure of the rail industry – a broad spread of opinion but a strong theme about accountability that comes through the seven groups we held around Britain.

Transport Focus carried out this work as one of our series of five papers on what passengers and non-users want from rail services, rail industry structures, passenger representation and trust – part of our engagement with the Williams team.

Passengers want, on local, metro and regional services, a much clearer sense of accountability – which one person is in charge of their service and who is in charge of the national rail network? Longer distance is a slightly different story. Some passengers perceived that genuine competition (or choice at least) between train companies such as between Birmingham to London or on services on the East Coast (LNER versus Grand Central versus Hull Trains) provides a stimulus to focus on passengers. Also, competition between rail, air and car acts as a spur to improve for the train companies.

How can this accountability be built into the post-Williams world – whichever secretary of state’s desk it lands on? Keith Williams has pointed to the fact that one rail body could be created which will ensure joined up planning and investment on both trains and track. This new body could, most likely, be a government company as Highways England, LNER and Network Rail are at the moment. I call this organisation ‘New Rail’ in this article. 

While there will be discussion as to what exactly goes into this body (for example, all of Network Rail or just the ‘System Operator’, brain and network planning, functions?) the potential advantages are palpable. Planning, taking account of what passengers need, long term track issues and the 40-year life cycle of trains. A single ‘till’ allowing spend where it is needed, not locked inside Network Rail or the train companies where it can only be spent on certain things. A look across the whole network and more joined-up thinking where routes and services need to co-operate.

How will this new body ensure it is responsive to its main consumers, us passengers? We are still going to be paying the lion’s share of the daily operating costs of the railway

However, how will this new body ensure it is responsive to its main consumers, us passengers? We are still going to be paying the lion’s share of the daily operating costs of the railway. There are going to be tensions over track closures for engineering works. The monopolistic nature of much rail provision will remain at a time when it is ever more urgent to get more people onto off peak trains, providing more sustainable travel choices.

For all its faults the tension between train companies and Network Rail could sometimes be constructive. Train companies need to keep running trains to build markets and earn revenue while the natural inclination of engineering companies is to shut things to allow cost effective and quicker works. This gap also allowed organisations like Transport Focus to intervene in debates, making sure that the needs of passengers were heard. Will the new rail body instead present a monolithic face to passengers?

Franchise replacement, again for all its problems, did bring new people and ideas into the railway. How will the new rail body avoid ossifying and defaulting back to the familiar way of doing things?

Train companies, as private sector organisations, are incentivised to increase sales and cut costs. Generally, both good things for passengers in the long term. How will the new rail body avoid taking its passengers for granted? Relying on a ‘They will come back – they always do…’ mentality will not work, especially outside of London.

Organisations like Transport Focus, as the statutory, consumer watchdog for Britain’s transport users will play a key part in keeping New Rail on track. The continued independent measure of rail passenger satisfaction will be vital to retain passenger and stakeholder confidence – New Rail cannot mark its own homework, although it will need a clear, deep understanding of what its passengers want.

Transport for London seems to keep itself pretty consumer focused. Both the London Overground and TfL Rail have recorded good passenger satisfaction scores as measured by Transport Focus’s National Rail Passenger Survey. Does this provide clues to the future? Some, maybe. The Overground had a high level of investment to get it started. Transport for London seems like a pretty intelligent client in this context and the retention by TfL of the revenue risk and marketing, leaving train operation to the concessionaire train companies, seems to have worked.

There is clear political accountability in the shape of the mayor as well. However, long term issues of affordability cloud the horizon. In places like Manchester no matter how much say the mayor may have in future on local service levels, fares and rolling stock the fact remains that someone else will have to make wider overall decisions for the railway as a whole. The national rail network has to remain just that. Someone has to decide on capacity and operational issues which will favour one group of passengers over another. So, ensuring New Rail listens to all passengers needs is key.

New Rail’s internal culture and outlook will also be crucial. People matter – having the right people in the right jobs is vital in any organisation. Retaining the revenue it generates may incentivise New Rail to cut costs, boost sales and invest in its business. Whether the Treasury will share this faith remains to be seen – franchises are one of the few places where cost control is truly incentivised in the current system.

The passenger voice will, however, remain the key issue. Ensuring New Rail must and does listen and respond to its passengers will be the litmus test of any new world order for passengers and the railways.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Anthony Smith has been Chief Executive of Transport Focus, the independent transport user watchdog, and its predecessor bodies since 1999

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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