Rail users lacked trust in train operators before the cuts were announced. Should they have faith that their services will return?

Victoria station: Will the commuters return?

Back in 2014, Transport Focus produced a compelling paper in relation to trust. It revealed that trust in train operators was pretty low. Indeed, the most trusted company enjoyed the trust of only 52% of those surveyed and the basement score was 22%. Imagine running your own business and achieving such a meagre result! It wasn’t a pretty picture, and perhaps the most damning and unpalatable aspect of this unedifying research that most of the articles reporting on the survey concluded that the results were completely unsurprising.

Last week, Transport Focus supremo Anthony Smith wrote a letter to Department for Transport’s Peter Wilkinson, Network Rail’s Andrew Haines and Rail Delivery Group’s Jacqueline Starr, reflecting on the logic of reducing services in line with Omicrom-induced staff shortages so that customers had more certainty around whether their train will run or not. Smith enquired whether there will be a plan to scale back up particularly as the virus seems to be starting to retreat. He also cited the questionable decision to reduce the London to Manchester frequency from three to only one train per hour.

The problem is indeed, one of trust and in the case of customers, if they genuinely had trust in the train operators then they would be more sanguine about the current cuts and confident services will return. I would suggest that I am probably more affected than many by the current situation. I cannot drive a car, I travel nationwide and I live on a branch line serving Shepperton (from Waterloo) that has had at least five years of service reductions – be it the Waterloo blockage, nine weekends of engineering works to try and fix flooding at Fulwell tunnel, industrial action and now Covid. My daughter relies on the service to get to university and reducing the timetable now to hourly is a major upheaval for her. Being a transport ‘insider’, I feel less unnerved because I know senior managers in South Western Railway and they are, in my view, trustworthy. They do the best for customers, even if the service is sometimes variable.

I read the letter from Anthony Smith and it is, of course, addressed to three of the finest people, who I, unlike your average customer, know. They are individuals that I trust. Peter Wilkinson, his decisions during the worst days of Covid kept the show on the road, while Andrew Haines had the railway coursing through his veins; his experience and judgment is second-to-none. Jaqueline Starr is renowned as one of the most customer-centric people in the industry and has a background in sectors with credentials for customer service and innovation that are the envy of rail.

It would be cynical to suggest that your average TOC senior leader cares not about customers and is only intent on following the command of their owning group or DfT edict. In the West Midlands, I have been involved with all of the TOCs to lobby on a decision to agree for the December 2022 timetable changes that we have planned and advocated for, as these will improve both the frequency and timing of services, and provide greater resilience in the timetable. It would have been easier for the operators to ‘keep their heads down’, but collectively they have been working to ensure that key strategic decisions are taken in a joined-up manner to improve the greater good for the region.

However, the TOC environment in which we reside is so markedly different from as recently as five years ago, where the incentive to grow revenue still existed for operators. Through franchise bidding there was also an almost continuous cycle of mentally stimulating franchise competitions that demanded that industry professionals always look at ways to unlock demand and grow patronage. Today’s railway feels like when I joined Royal Mail in 2011 and worked for just over a year within its letters division, and where every instinct and action was to cut costs and manage decline. Then, when I moved to the commercial arm of the business, focusing mostly on parcels, it took, I admit, a few months to resharpen my creative and ‘sales’ juices again.

Back to trust. The problem is that this ‘managing decline’ is the default attitude of modern-day government and indeed too many private sector businesses. Whilst in a previous article, I argued that there was no shame in reducing a timetable to reflect lower patronage levels, my fear is that large swathes of the industry have neither the conviction to put their head above the parapet, nor the span of accountability or the commercial acumen to see the current timetable reductions as temporary.

My ‘glass half full’ philosophy keeps reassuring me that by April, when the hotter weather and longer days kick in, it would be inconceivable that an hourly service will still operate on the Shepperton branch. However, if we get too far into the cricket season without building back service levels, then, for sure, the days of our line ever having a half-hourly frequency again will be gone forever. And with that, our quality of life is eroded – house prices plummet, locals have less inclination to travel and it’s easier to sit on the sofa at home and watch the match on TV. Social mobility, health and general well-being in north west Surrey becomes a real issue. It’s not as if we have an anywhere near acceptable bus service in our environs either.

As much as I respect industry colleagues, I don’t see enough evidence across the industry on a day-to-day basis of commercially hungry entrepreneurs, with the guts and conviction to seize the initiative

Can we trust that rail industry managers haven’t approached this exercise with a view to reducing services through the back door under the guise of Omicrom? Hand on heart, I don’t think they have deliberate underhand motivations. But can I trust them not to let this situation meander and lapse into a lethargic stupor in which the reduced timetable becomes the ‘new norm’? As much as I respect industry colleagues, I don’t see enough evidence across the industry on a day-to-day basis of commercially hungry entrepreneurs, with the guts and conviction to seize the initiative.

Of course, the trade unions, the age-old constraint that has eternally dogged the railway could be the saviour for customers. Their stranglehold in preventing enforced redundancies and ensuring that the cost base of the industry remains largely ‘fixed’ means that when folk do return from Omicrom induced absences there will be staff hanging round unproductively unless the timetable is stepped up again. We can’t have drivers sitting around with no trains scheduled for them to run or signallers only engaged every hour when a service enters their patch. That would be a folly. Glory be to the fixed cost base of the railway! However, time and ‘natural wastage’ caused by not replacing those who leave will lead to a staffing plan that is more commensurate with the unappealingly lightweight current timetable, and then there will be less of an incentive to restore services.

I also don’t trust the extent to which many managers understand local market dynamics or feel the pain of a sudden move to an infrequent timetable. I’ve been in enough meetings at industry HQs where folk blithely make snap decisions regarding cuts, either in normal services or when disruptions happen, without thinking through the consequences. In many cases they have never visited the places impacted and know nothing about them.

Regularly, the same old services or branch lines suffer inconvenience during disruption because the ‘contingency plan’ means they have to ‘step down’ services, without anyone ever having the nous to reflect on the prolonged misery inflicted over a period of time and the effect on the market. Most industry managers don’t live on the patch they serve and consequently don’t care as much as they should. Those who do reside on their network know they will get grief in the local pub or at dinner parties or on the school run if they or their colleagues are making a pig’s ear of running a train service.

There are exceptions and I think we all know who they are, but many of those overseeing our railway think they are commercially savvy and driven by market needs. They have always been protected by their large corporate structure and compensation package, complete with free travel and final salary pension, and in roles that actually have not much more commercial influence than a teacher, vicar, nurse or social worker! Some think that just because they are called managing directors or CEOs that it must mean they are up there with Richard Branson or Jeff Bezos. You think I’m exaggerating – join me for a cheeky glass of coke one evening and I’ll regale you with some eyebrow-raising tales.

I am not suggesting that the timetable should not shift to meet changing demand – not at all. What I am seeing, though, is, at the early stages, a more wholesale approach to reductions and I just don’t see the bank of historical evidence that suggests the industry will have the drive to do anything but let the situation linger and become the new reality. I would, in some respects, feel more confident if I had sight of a strategic plan with milestones and plans to create new flows, markets and types of customers that would have as their cornerstones a commensurate build back of services as part of a marketable, compelling product. I see little, if any, of the kind of naval gazing, blue-sky discussion around ‘market reinvention’, of creating a new purpose for customers to want to travel and associated marketing message. What are rail’s service differentiators versus staying at home, for instance? There’s lots of talk about innovation around ticketing, as though the current ticketing proposition is THE impediment to travel and solving it will be the panacea for everything, but I’m not convinced.

Boris’s ‘back to work’ message omitted to mention that commuter services had been cut the very same week

The messaging around the service cuts must be clearer and more decisive, otherwise it will continue to lack credibility. I appreciate that it’s not easy to predict the path that the virus will take. Typically, like overrunning engineering works, the railway was one step behind. Timetable reductions have been implemented during a period in which Covid restrictions have been lifted. Boris’s ‘back to work’ message omitted to mention that commuter services had been cut the very same week.

We, the people, or the customers, can make a difference. When the railways really mattered to communities – when people travelled five days a week to and from work, well before the societal changes that were creeping in pre-pandemic, the stakeholder matrix for the industry was more diverse, complex and vocal. User and other consumer groups were plentiful, they were demanding, and vigilante protests also took to stations – witness the opprobrium during the strikes on Southern and the clamour for sackings after timetable change fiascos in 2018. Newspaper headlines abounded with tales of delays and high fares, with quotes from commuters suffering disruption and at their wits end, regaling tales of the impact on their domestic lives. TOC senior managers were household names for the wrong reasons. Those days could come again – if we had a crystal ball and discovered these ‘temporary’ reductions transpired, inadvertently or not, to become permanent, then they could be reversed by an uprising, of protests, petitions and painful headlines.

You don’t miss something until it’s gone, and it may be that this realisation of the permanent disappearance of services, can grip the nation. If that’s the case, Anthony Smith’s letter last week could be the very start of something big. This is where Transport Focus could and should come into its own as the stakes get higher than ever before.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 28 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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