Plan for Rail has much to admire, but I worry about whether the structure will drive long term customer-centric innovation


The ability to ‘think different’ is at the core of Apple’s ideology. Can the same be said of GBR?

The White Paper skewers the existing structure with impeccable accuracy and defines customer needs perfectly. Everything from train interiors (more tables) to typeface (New Rail Alphabet) to ticketing (contactless and PAYG) is covered, and is good.

It brings together disparate organisations who clearly ought to work together. How can it make sense that the Department for Transport specifies fares, Rail Delivery Group runs the fares system while operators set fares? In future, all of those functions will be in one place.

Over and again, the White Paper solves real problems with intelligence, coherence and ambition.

Moreover, given that Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines (about whom I hear only good things) is in charge of establishing the new organisation, I feel a glow of optimism about the railway for the next few years.

But roll on to 2026, and I’m worried about whether the structure will drive long term customer-centric innovation.

If, in 2051, the railway is still delivering the same outcomes as in 2021, then the next review will be focused on why nothing has changed. Contactless, tables and the New Rail Alphabet only take you so far.

The original model of privatisation envisaged operators innovating. Some did (including, I like to think, my old home of Chiltern Railways). But innovation was tougher with shorter franchises or on routes with multiple operators or – quite frankly – in firms that hadn’t been founded by Adrian Shooter.

So, in the new world, revenue risk will sit with Great British Railways, who will define the outcomes they want and directly control the timetable, fares and website.

So, it’s critical that Great British Railways is a customer-focused, innovation powerhouse.

Will this happen?

Well, it might, but it’s not certain.

The White Paper models the new system heavily on London Overground. Transport for London is chaired by the mayor of London who sets the strategy and monitors delivery. The White Paper envisages a similar relationship for GBR.

Great British Railways will be accountable to ministers in a similar way that TfL is to the mayor of London.

The problem is that the secretary of state is a fundamentally different job to the mayor of London. The mayor is virtually a single-issue politician. They run on a policy platform that is largely transport, and then get precisely four years to deliver. The date of the next election is known and the mayor is judged on whether they’ve achieved what they promised. So TfL has a very significant degree of political stability and total policy clarity. Innovation is driven by the mayor’s transport strategy, and TfL is there to deliver it. As the voters who elect the mayor are TfL’s customer base, having the mayor as chair of the TfL board is a highly effective way of holding TfL to account and driving change.

The secretary of state is a different beast. The average tenure of a transport secretary is about 18 months and can change at the whim of the prime minister.

Whereas the mayor can only be fired by the voters of London, British voters can neither hire nor fire the transport secretary. Even when general elections come along, they are not won based on whether the government fulfilled its transport manifesto.

As a result, transport secretaries wouldn’t be human if they didn’t care more about reshuffles than customers.

So, if we can’t rely on governance to drive innovation top-down, then how about bottom-up; driven by customers?

The issue is that the feedback loop from the frontline is broken by the new structure. TOCs on the frontline will be the ones to hear feedback about times, fares and product – but with no locus to control them.

It’s interesting to see how Apple, the most valuable company on earth, deals with this. Their design function (equivalent to the railway’s timetable, fares and product planning) is in-house. As it will be for GBR. Engineering (staggeringly complex, almost miraculous, nanotechnology in which processing chips are packed with 12 billion transistors) is by far the most important thing Apple does, so you’d expect that would also be kept in-house. But, no, it is the stores that are in-house and engineering outsourced. Why? Because while the engineering is critical, if Apple loses touch with customers, it will build the wrong technology (possibly very competently) and fail.

GBR is flipping the Apple model: engineering is in-house but the trains … will be outsourced.

GBR is flipping the Apple model: engineering is in-house but the trains (equivalent to Apple’s stores: the place where the customer conversations happen) will be outsourced.

So if long-term innovation is neither pushed down through governance nor pushed up from customers, it will have to be self-generated in GBR.

Now there’s a model for this too. When I worked at National Express in the early 2000s, the coach services were almost entirely outsourced to operators. But despite that, NX was able to act as specifier and driver of innovation. We received the feedback and worked extra hard to make sure the customer’s voice was heard, including, for example, having a dedicated text code on every vehicle so we could hear customers’ thoughts in real time. The White Paper helps by creating an enhanced role for Transport Focus.

However, NX had the advantage that it operated neither coaches nor infrastructure. I noticed how the culture started to change when more and more services were operated from in-house garages. Exec meetings, which had been primarily about customers, became more dominated by the price of diesel, union negotiations and vehicle procurement. These matters had always been critical but had previously been the responsibility of operators, and NX could be demanding customer advocates.

By outsourcing the train service but keeping infrastructure in-house, there’s a risk that the customer gets squeezed out by agenda items like pay negotiations, cost escalations on infrastructure projects or advances in engineering technology

In a sense, there’s a danger that GBR is the worst of all worlds. By outsourcing the train service but keeping infrastructure in-house, there’s a risk that the customer gets squeezed out by agenda items like pay negotiations, cost escalations on infrastructure projects or advances in engineering technology. All of these things are critical but the leadership of the industry needs to focus on the customer. TfL doesn’t have to directly manage these things on the Overground.

There’s an argument for saying that it would be better to either recreate British Rail and run everything in-house, or keep Network Rail separate and make GBR a customer-focused powerhouse.

The other reason why the cause of innovation is somewhat at risk is that the new structure risks a contractual interface between cost and revenue that didn’t exist in either British Rail or the franchising model.

To give an example, let’s imagine that GBR wanted to run a trial of a British version of SNCF’s child chaperone service Junior & Cie. With that product, certain trains are dedicated for young children, who can then travel unaccompanied. While a child chaperone service may generate wider benefits, in the short-term, a whole load of unaccompanied children are likely to import performance risk and cost. British Rail or a franchisee could just try it and absorb the hit internally, but the contractual interface between GBR and the various operators will make this more difficult as a means will need to be found to hold the operators harmless.

The White Paper is keen to eliminate delay attribution, but if GBR try Junior & Cie and the kids delay the train, surely the operator will seek to argue that it’s not their fault that the trains are late and they shouldn’t be penalised.

The risk is that it becomes much easier just not to try stuff.

There is a final significant risk for innovation: budget. One of the features of the franchise system we’ll miss is that the combination of regulated control periods and contractualised franchise agreements gave the railway certainty of budget, and protection from the Treasury.

The White Paper models the railway on the success of London Overground, but in normal circumstances (i.e. not as they are now!), TfL’s budget is highly predictable as the mayor doesn’t have multiple competing departments, nor the statutory powers to move money between them. While it’s very encouraging that the government has committed to retain five-year infrastructure budgets, the same is not true for day-to-day spending. Unlike historic TfL budgets (who knows what the future holds), the GBR budget will always be vulnerable to raids from other departments. As today’s railway costs what it costs, it’ll be innovation that gets squeezed out.

In conclusion, the White Paper is articulate, intelligent and coherent. The customer outcomes it describes are sensible. The structure it proposes can work. But the creation of GBR is going to be absolutely critical.

With the right people, culture and resources, it could become one of Europe’s great powerhouses for rail innovation. It will have the scale and scope to deliver not just what customers know they want today but what they’ll want tomorrow. TfL delivered both Oyster and contactless for customers before customers even knew they wanted them.

GBR needs a culture that is laser-focused on the customer, and leadership that earns credibility with both politicians and users alike

To achieve that, GBR needs a culture that is laser-focused on the customer, and leadership that earns credibility with both politicians and users alike.

I’m not worried about the next five years: the White Paper is prescriptive of the right medicines, and Andrew Haines is the right person to dispense it.

But when the trains all have tables, the signs all have the right typeface and the ticketing is tickety-boo, then comes the question of what is next?

I suspect that by 2026, expectations will be for every customer to have a constant, personalised digital relationship with GBR with every element of the experience rated in real time, resources deployed to fix issues as they occur and live, dynamic and automated rerouting whenever disruption occurs.

Some of this is already happening in a piecemeal way, but largely it comes into the category of something that customers don’t currently have and don’t currently know they want. The challenge will be creating GBR as the organisation that makes things like this happen.

If it does, British Railways will genuinely be Great.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Thomas Ableman is founder and CEO of Snap Travel Technology and blogs at He was previously Commercial Director of Chiltern Railways

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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