The railway is talking about Workplace Reform, the post-Covid world demands it. But what will it look like and will it happen?

The railway needs the right people in the right place at the right time

‘Workplace Reform’ are the two words that are on the lips of every rail industry bigwig right now. Indeed, the ability to solve this conundrum holds the key in many respects to the successful early stages of Great British Railways when that transpires.

‘Workplace Reform’ feels a bit like that Elysian dream of Crystal Palace beating Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final in a fortnight, then overcoming Manchester City or Liverpool in the final to secure our first ever major silverware in 116 years history as a football club. It’s actually within tantalising reach of happening, but somehow you just feel we could remain as disappointed as we always have done. Those over 50, like me, sense it won’t happen in our lifetimes. But you never know and as the old adage goes… ‘it’s the hope that kills you’.

For those of you not up on the lingo, Workplace Reform (depending on your interpretation) is the work stream that all manner of railway top dogs are involved in currently trying to crack – in effect, ‘how do we radically re-shape the way in which the railway is operated from a staffing perspective, so it is sustainable going forward?’. Societal changes that were influencing demand for rail travel and were shaping up prior to Covid have only been expedited during and since the pandemic. We knew all along that the cost model of the sector needed addressing – and this is now on the agenda. The Williams Shapps Review references this.

If we are to assume that James McArthur (or whoever Patrick Viera chooses to wear the captain’s armband) lifts the FA Cup for Crystal Palace on May 14 and the other seismic event of Workplace Reform actually occurs, then what might it look like? There’s already a head of steam from most of the TOCs to do some housekeeping, and in my ‘day job’ running Tracsis’ Transport Consultancy, we’re in demand in terms of scrutinising rosters, diagrams and processes at many TOCs to ensure that they are as slick and efficient as possible. We’re also into the fine detail of working out how timetables can be better developed to run the railway cost effectively and aligned to current and future customer (and freight) demand.

At the moment, the approach has tended to be tweaking and small steps, though there is a gathering pace around more radical change in terms of staffing models and timetabling

At the moment, the approach has tended to be tweaking and small steps, though there is a gathering pace around more radical change in terms of staffing models and timetabling. Having been ram-packed on South Western Railway trains to and from Waterloo in the sunshine on Saturday, March 26, then alone on a deserted commute in the days that followed, there surely must be a case for a revolutionising of the timetable that goes as far as eradicating the Monday-Friday morning and evening peak periods. So much cost is imported into these, particularly in terms of rolling stock and drivers hanging around in sidings between the Coast and Waterloo through the bulk of the day, just to service one or, at most, two trains into and out of London. For South Western, read Southern, South Eastern and all of the commuter TOCs, particularly c2c, which is almost entirely a peak-centric railway.

The on-train service provision is certainly part of the ‘Workplace Reform’ activity. The amount of crew required on Inter City TOCs to fulfil an at-seat complimentary First Class meal proposition is probably disproportionate to the overall customer expectation, need and indeed desire for that service. As impressive as the proposition can be, it’s still modest fare for the intensity and scale of resource invested to ensure its fulfilment. I suspect a First Class customer may indeed be just as happy for a voucher with their ticket to use to buy something at the station to take on the train (thereby helping also breathe life into some of the ailing outlets that have suffered post-Covid but whose presence is integral and important to the overall end-to-end journey experience).

Solidarity among the operators is key in any proposition shift that might hinder or enhance the ability to achieve Workplace Reform. It’s no good, for instance, CrossCountry reducing its on-board product if LNER expands it further, whether with good intentions. A national, unified approach is essential.

So too, retailing and revenue protection need to be aligned. Currently, different TOCs are at various stages and iterations in terms of their policy on pursuing changes to Schedule 17 – in essence, ticket office opening hours. The trendy philosophy of closing ticket offices with a vision that bored staff would no longer be waiting all afternoon for non-existent customers to come to their window and would instead become emancipated ambassadors, pro-actively hunting out and delighting customers, was, just like Palace winning the cup, a pipe dream. Some TOCs are still optimistically pursuing this, others still view staffing ticket offices to their schedule as sacrosanct, whilst many are in a middle ground – midway through deciding what to do or in the throes of painful negotiations with trade unions and other stakeholders.

Meanwhile, ticket machines, which are the ‘mitigation’ of closing ticket offices, are still a mish mash across the network. I have finally mastered the ones on South Western Railway yet I was bamboozled by a different set-up at Preston last week and then at Leeds. For a seasoned traveller, such as I, it’s painful – heaven knows what it’s like for an irregular customer. How did we ever get to a position of so many ticket machines that are so aesthetically different even in terms of them being easily identifiable, let alone designed and functioning with any consistency?

Retail fulfilment extends to the use of e-tickets, with many ticket gates still not having workable barcode readers and some inadvertently charging customers erroneously if they brush past with their contactless card in their wallets! Then there is the frustrating situation that I encountered recently when a client purchased me a ticket for a business trip and forwarded me the reference, but for security reasons I was unable to collect the ticket because I did not have to hand the credit card it was purchased on. Not even the chap in the ticket office was able to assist! As it was, I was so frustrated and confident that revenue protection would not be robust that I travelled anyway and on the one and only time in the entire journey that my ticket was checked (all the gates were wide open!), thankfully the conductor used common sense and was satisfied with me showing him the email and booking reference.
However, revenue protection is a key element of ‘Workplace Reform’ as we cannot have a situation whereby one TOC will deliberately ‘down tools’ and have a policy of gates being unstaffed for most of the time or only checking tickets on ‘key flows’ while there is much more vigilance across other parts of the UK. Similarly, it’s letting the team down for one operator not to have a revenue protection strategy (trust me, some don’t even have this!).

It’s also poor form for one TOC not to have re-mobilised revenue protection officers (RPOs) post-Covid or to have diluted their role to barrier duties, whilst another ensures their RPOs are following an intelligence-led approach to deployment, are trained in all manner of byelaw enforcement, supported by a covert undercover team and prosecute offenders, rather than let them off with an excess or penalty fare or slap on the wrists.

The ability to have a national model with, at most, variance by profile of service (e.g. short distance, inter-urban, inter city etc) is critical in driving genuine and lasting change to the employment model. Not only does this robustness make it easier and fairer to enact in terms of engagement with the necessary stakeholders, most notably the trade unions, but it takes the emphasis off the customer having to navigate their way through such a piecemeal and inconsistent experience. Why should I have to change my thought process with each type of ticket machine I seek out and have to use? Why is the onus on me to understand whether I need to eat before getting on the train because I don’t know whether there’s going to be any nosh on-board? Why should I stress over whether my ticket will work the gates, just because the railway was dumb enough to evolve over time on an unmanaged operator by operator basis?

Workplace Reform also demands equilibrium in terms of approach to management and support structures. One of the benefits of the Department for Transport effectively funding all the operators currently is that there is transparency and scrutiny around the distribution and sign-off of costs. It’s a long way from the opaqueness in which large bid teams and fancy-Dans with grandiose group-based job titles somehow found their way onto the TOC bottom-line. It’s really important, though, that some kind of defined organisation structure exists across each TOC, mindful, of course, not to create too many constraining parameters that don’t reflect geographical nuances. Accordingly a uniform approach by the DfT or contracting authority to managing and measuring the contracts with operators, which has been, in the main, achieved with considerable success, is essential. However, that there is still a lingering sense of ‘haves and have nots’ across the industry and slight inconsistency in terms of being able to hold them to account, suggests perfection has not yet been achieved, but that’s an article for another day.

Having the fortitude and expertise to pull all this off is not going to be easy

Having the fortitude and expertise to pull all this off is not going to be easy. In some respects, the proliferation of different terms and conditions for staff across the industry reflects the variable success of different leaders over time. Those who have shied away from not getting Sunday inside the working week (that age-old, perennial barrier) shouldn’t be belittled but it’s fair to say that there are regions or collections of depots that have more sustainable models and less local practices as a result of them benefitting from the best, most determined HR directors, regional managers and industrial relations experts. Going forward, this almost random, by chance, approach should be eradicated with a national template.

Like Crystal Palace, the rail industry is potentially on the cusp of game-changing success. The problem is like my favourite football team, we’ve been living off ‘potential’ for too long. We really need to be making the breakthrough and now’s as good a time as ever. Let’s hold our nerve and go for it, once and for all.

CORRECTION: My previous column (PT261) inaccurately stated that Stephen Nee appeared in the infamous zoom meeting video in which 800 P&O Ferries staff were informed they had lost their jobs. He did not. I am happy to clarify this and would like to apologise to Stephen for this error.

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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