Punctuality and reliability soared when lockdown took rail users away. We must not now regard the return of delays as inevitable

Unless we’re all over the detail, a trend of worsening punctuality could become a crisis in a few months’ time

“The problem with you is that you are always looking for something to worry about,” is an oft-used catchphrase in the Warner household, mainly by ‘Er Indoors. She is correct, if I’m not fretting about something trivial I’ll focus on the big-ticket stuff, like lightning hitting our house and destroying the model railway in the attic. Anyway, I’ve got a new niggling source of anxiety right now and it is the creeping decline in punctuality and reliability on the railway.

Later this week, the Office of Rail and Road will be producing the most recent quarterly performance statistics and it is unlikely to make pretty reading. Although I suspect the figures won’t be sufficiently bad to make headlines, particularly as, sadly, patronage has declined so much. In some respects whether a train runs on time or not is less relevant in the lives of the nation than it was this time two years ago – but that’s a story for another day.

Whilst the PPM moving annual average for the UK rose very slightly in the period just ended to 90.9% (Period 5 – which is basically August), it had dropped to 89.1% the previous four weeks. Indeed, Period 4 was a bit of a shocker really, particularly considering the low numbers of customers travelling.

The missus would, of course, contest that this is typical unnecessary angst behaviour from me, particularly as in the month pre-pandemic (February 2020), PPM was as low as 83.9%, rising to 88% the following month, which, you’ll recall saw passenger numbers fall off a cliff as nervousness around Covid crept in before Boris announced the lockdown with a week to spare ahead of the end of the period. I would argue, though, that it is absolutely right to start getting all fidgety and anxious – history, time and time again illustrates that if trends aren’t nipped in the bud at the earliest opportunity, then anarchy eventually prevails.

The crying shame is that we had the opportunity to wipe the slate clean when PPM rose to as high as 97% in the pandemic

The crying shame is that we had the opportunity to wipe the slate clean when PPM rose to as high as 97% in the pandemic. I felt, in some quarters, I was a lone voice asking the sector to reflect on what it was doing right, bottle it and make sure that when passenger numbers rose again we were well positioned to continue the upward trajectory. Given that passengers are generally the cause of many delays, industry colleagues were not off the mark in citing that in fact they were not doing anything particularly well or different, it was just that fewer people were travelling. Even if this was the case, we had an opportunity to use the time whilst the railway was, as they pointed out, ‘self-running’, to plot how we were going to run the system again to achieve world-leading performance.

In fairness, some ‘stopping the clock’ reflection and planning in the industry has ensued – new timetable steering groups have taken place and been more collaborative and radical in their approach than before – setting out propositions that are intended to be more efficient, recognising the lower demand, but nonetheless more customer-focused than previously. So too, the work of the Railway Revenue Recovery Group has been strategic, blank sheet of paper style and building back up. Looking at the railway as though we’re rebuilding it from scratch, without the legacy of quirks and constraints that have hindered it before, is the right use of the time the industry has had whilst hardly anyone was travelling.

Of course, it would be naive to think the railway can be rebuilt without recognition that irritations that stymie progress aren’t going to just disappear – such as trade union militancy, flat junctions, ageing infrastructure, politics between operators, infrastructure owner, local authorities, inflexible staff terms and conditions and so on. However, in creating a proposition, that has at its starting point, the needs of the customer, and working backwards from there, it is absolutely essential not to let the vision and mindset be cluttered by problem-stating. “Let the market decide,” is a truism never more relevant than now.

What I sense currently, though, in some areas, is slight complacency towards the gradually emerging deterioration in performance – almost a view that it was inevitable once passenger numbers began to grow again, rather than an intolerance of returning to the bad old days of sub-90% PPM

What I sense currently, though, in some areas, is slight complacency towards the gradually emerging deterioration in performance – almost a view that it was inevitable once passenger numbers began to grow again, rather than an intolerance of returning to the bad old days of sub-90% PPM. The problem is that agendas for meetings don’t appear to be so dominated by talk of performance like they used to – we’re in transition as an industry and distractions such as the future structure and migration to GB Railways, recovering revenue, net zero carbon environment, National Rail Concessions, Direct Award negotiations, diversity and inclusion, fares reform, home-working, mental health and so on are more appealing. They are, of course, important subjects, but they have, sometimes, taken the discussion and focus away from the old-fashioned principles of whether trains run on time or not. If meetings are around performance, some tend to be from a perspective of only achieving efficiencies, rather than better outcomes for customers. Similarly, during a period of transition, such that we currently face, it’s easier to make excuses.

Of course, the challenges are more multi-faceted. There’s clearly a looming industrial relations crisis and dare I say it, possibly a national strike on the horizon. The unions have got the hump with SWR and ScotRail’s plans to reduce services, whilst the role of the guard is bubbling away in EMR and there’s a driver training backlog. The ‘pingdemic’ contributed to driver shortages that underpinned poor performance in Period 4 and though government policy around self-isolating has changed, the virus clearly hasn’t gone away.

The industry is also struggling from a capability perspective. I speak as someone who heads up a transport consultancy business. Whilst we’ve a brilliant team, it’s difficult trying to attract new blood. That’s been a challenge since square wheels, but technology has brought with it competing career attractions, for your bright, analytical, brainbox graduates, whilst at the other end of the spectrum, the old, hugely experienced railway operational experts have gone into retirement and not been replaced.

The capability issue is a challenge beyond the very technical level. Within consultancy, there’s a shortage of former operations director types, more so than at any point in the last 30 years. I’ve brilliant ones on my roster, but beyond that, the operations consultants with heavyweight experience have either been away from doing jobs in the sector for so long now that their skills aren’t relevant or they don’t have the inclination to get their hands dirty and prefer to just do the odd bit of strategic thinking here or there. In the mainstream TOC environment, the already short supply of senior operational experts in leadership roles may diminish further with the inception of concessions, unless their expertise is seen as fundamental to the running of the network and they don’t think they are being marginalised by Network Rail or anyone else ‘at the centre’. We could be left with operations heavyweights commentating from the sidelines and those actually ‘doing the doing’ hamstrung by the structure in which they function and lack of levers to pull as well. They may be too insipid because they lack the requisite experience and track record. Gone are the days where the TOC operations director was the ruler of the network. It will also be interesting to see the approach any new entrant company might make to the industry – if the concession model is seeking to attract traditional ‘out of sector’ service contract companies, will they under estimate the importance of the tried and tested, sometimes cynical but indefatigable operational old-stager? They know every trick in the book and have the gravitas and desire to communicate with Network Rail and other suppliers of which his or her performance depends upon.

A fantastic national advertising campaign is in full flow to attract customers back on trains again, yet I don’t see this sudden panic that the service they will be joining is going to be so bad, that they might not come back for more

Part of the problem is also that the industry has always culturally, more than most sectors, struggled to draw a correlation between poor customer service and customer attrition. A fantastic national advertising campaign is in full flow to attract customers back on trains again, yet I don’t see this sudden panic that the service they will be joining is going to be so bad, that they might not come back for more. Right now, and with so much energy and money being spent on the media campaign to get customers back on the railway, there needs to be constant fretting from those responsible for the delivery of the network that we may disappoint those who choose to travel as a result of our publicity.

For now, there’s a great deal of collaboration among rail industry partners on a national and regional level – more so than ever before. Talk is cheap and what is, in some places, lacking is a concerted and granular level investigation involving TOCs, Network Rail, freight for all parts of the UK rail network. Any plan must be sophisticated and not just list random initiatives without any comprehension or illustration of how the sum of these drives better performance. It must also properly quantify, forecast and then measure the impact of each initiative. You’d expect this to be the foundation upon which the railway plans and manages delivery.

It also amazes me how large swathes of the industry didn’t use the pandemic sensibly to revisit, refresh and re-brief their plans for managing information during disruption. This would have been an ideal time to ‘stop the clock’ and churn out regional, local and departmental plans and train (albeit online) frontline and management teams in their delivery. Understanding, once and for all, what works and what doesn’t would also have been prudent – it still surprises me how circular the whole approach to delay management is – plans still discuss the merits of co-location of control rooms with Network Rail versus regional TOC-only mini-controls, or of introducing a dedicated person in control responsible for assimilating information and spreading it internally and to customers during disruption, or the pros and cons of ‘skip-stopping’ as a means of recovering the service more quickly. It’s as if the railway were only created yesterday, yet these are the same themes or initiatives that we’ve been discussing now for decades.

What is needed right now are a few more bores. During the course of my career, I’ve lost count of the amount of industry events or one-to-one dinners and social events with railway colleagues where I’d want to chunter on about ‘Delight the Customer Days’, football, EastEnders or inane tittle tattle about someone else’s private life and others would always turn the conversation onto PPM and the microscopic detail that underpins the latest figures, whilst helpfully sharing lessons learned of different (and sometimes failed) approaches to improving performance. Much of the time the conversation was drier than I’d hoped, but there are far fewer of these kind of social interactions and discussions than these days. Maybe it’s down to the pandemic or perhaps I’m more boring than anyone else and don’t get invited to anything anymore, but I’ve noticed the railway doesn’t do operations like it did.

Anyway, despite ‘Er Indoors’ views, I don’t think I’m worrying unnecessarily. Leaf-fall season hasn’t really started properly yet and we’re already on the back-foot with performance. Unless we’re all over the detail, this emerging trend could become a crisis in a few months’ time, if we’re not careful. It’s really that serious and it’s not too late to cancel the marketing campaign even if we might be cancelling the trains. .

This article appears inside the issue 238 of Passenger Transport.

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