We have an opportunity to fundamentally reconsider how we use space on trains as well as the role of the national rail network

Before the pandemic, Dutch railway NS worked on train designs that enhance the experience for customers

The last 18 months have been a time of unparalleled change and disruption for the national rail industry in the UK, and generally globally. While some parts of society have stabilised in the post-Covid world, others are still dealing with disruption and the development of new business processes. This includes office-based work, events, travel and tourism. Thus, as a derived demand, national rail is not yet able to plan for a stable near future.

The UK rail industry was also already coming to the end of its previous structure as evidenced by the Williams Review, political and public fatigue with the outcomes of the 1990s-style privatisation, the newly announced ‘Great British Railways’ structure and the eventual arrival of a redefined UK industry with HS2.

Rail remains critically important to the UK as a means of enabling economic activity via jobs, events, tourism and education, as well as a means of delivering low carbon mobility solutions. It also represents a vast historic investment in assets that need to be utilised.

The challenges in stabilising, both financially as well as operationally, the national rail network, as well as reconnecting with the previous user base for these services, are vast. It will likely be some time before we return to the era of the previous two decades with perpetual rail demand growth and issues of crowding and capacity increases being the primary focus of the industry. Rail demand, and transport demand in general, is likely to be much more localised, diffuse and complex in the coming months and years. UK train demand in excess of pre-Covid levels to the seaside over the recent August Bank holiday indicates the shifts in usage of the mode.

But, there are some interesting and relevant opportunities.

Rail in the UK, and particularly into the big cities, has for many years been primarily focussed on increasing peak (commuting) capacity – more trains, longer platforms for longer trains, more seats per carriage, reducing the number of standees in order to increase customer satisfaction for these commuters, increasing train and customer capacity through stations. This has been the grand engineering and technical challenge, certainly since the millennium. It was based on the assumption that by enabling more workers to get to jobs in urban areas by train, growth in the economy would be enabled.

We have now had a reset in demand. It is clear that for many workers access to central places of work is no longer related to their ability to be productive. Home working, flexible working and remote working is now a common, and in many cases preferred, way of working for many. There may still be a drift back to central office based working in the coming years, but each current month of disruption integrates home working into the structure of business and life.

This in turn weakens the rail model of primarily seeking to serve peak period commuting.

Is this not an opportunity to fundamentally reconsider how we are using space on trains as well as the role of the national rail network in supporting mobility?

If the peak is to be less dominant in our thinking of mobility, can we think more clearly about addressing the needs of a wider set of travellers? Travellers who have a range of user needs?

The brilliance of the car industry has been its ability to create vehicles … to serve a vast number of personal user cases for mobility across a wide segment of the population

The brilliance of the car industry has been its ability to create vehicles – as well as get governments to deliver the supporting road infrastructure – to serve a vast number of personal user cases for mobility across a wide segment of the population. Although never for everyone! In recent years many of these variations in car design have been built upon a decreasing set of base platforms in order to contain development costs and result in manufacturing scale efficiencies.

The post-Covid reset in passenger rail demand is the chance for the rail industry to adopt some of this thinking. The starting point should be to think beyond the seat! Yes, a seat is nice and may ultimately be preferred, but as a traveller I have a wide range of other spatial needs on a train journey.

These spatial needs will vary as I commute to work – some days a week, travel with a bicycle, travel with luggage for a trip, travel with a lot of shopping, travel with friends, travel with young children, may be partially injured and have limited mobility, may be very tired and want very private space, may need to perform a work or social call, or even charge a device. The list of these spatial needs is extensive, but the key issue is that there are a wide and evolving set of user cases. And, these user cases on trains do not all immediately revolve around obtaining a seat as quickly as possible and thus, as an operator the need to maximise the number of seats on offer.

Carriages should be designed to offer different spaces and environments for the wide range of user cases. This will ultimately increase customer satisfaction by offering travellers a flexible space to integrate rail travel into the evolving specifics of their journey needs. The opportunity is particularly apparent as we have a lower level of base peak demand during this post-Covid period. The UK also has the advantage of having recently invested in significant amounts of rail rolling stock capacity. This is a further opportunity to consider how this capacity is used.

A carriage that has not been maximised for seating capacity is not a wasted carriage!

A carriage that has not been maximised for seating capacity is not a wasted carriage!

The most obvious user case is regarding space for cycles, but we need to think much more widely than this. The increase in a range of micro-mobility solutions will create increasing demand for access to these types of spaces. A solution and capacity for these types of devices agreed five years ago may not be realistic today, or in another five years.

As the demand on rail services becomes more diverse and fragmented, other types of users may see previously designed cycle space as useful for their needs – such as parents with push chairs, luggage – and create conflict if limited amounts of flexible space are provided versus copious amounts of standard paired seating.

There is also the wider issue of making the stations, ticket halls, access to platforms, waiting areas and platforms themselves viable for this wide range of user cases. Much good work has been done in this area via station accessibility plans, such as through lifts and minimising the platform/carriage gaps. However, until all stations are accessible, customers will find this issue an ongoing impediment to the use of the system.

Fundamentally, this is an opportunity for the rail industry to build back better following the pandemic. It is an opportunity to realise and accept that the primary previous user group upon which the system has been designed may not return in their previous numbers. This should not be taken as a chance to wait and try to convince these potential travellers to do what they had done before, but to seek out and support the wider range of customers who up to now had not been the focus of the industry in the design of its facilities and particularly its rail carriages.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Giles K Bailey is a Director at Stratageeb, a London based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation. Previously, he had spent nine years as Head of Marketing Strategy at Transport for London.

This article appears alongside further coverage in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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