Whether or not those who work in the sector know it or care, our troubled railway is fast slipping out of nation’s consciousness

A scene of pre-pandemic commuters – how many of these people still regularly use the railway?

Last year, I questioned whether there would be a time in the not too distant future when the railway lost its relevance, usurped by other public services in terms of dependability for the nation. The diminished importance of commuting was hastened by the pandemic, and an industry that had, to a not insignificant extent, been mired in self-importance and complacency as well as beset by consistently inconsistent government policy. These were factors that would contribute towards its demise. In truth, I didn’t think the situation would unravel as quickly as it is now, but I genuinely feel that we’re not far away from that point of no return, a situation that has also been noted in the last week with several articles across mainstream media.

Remember in the midst of the pandemic when those of us working in the rail sector were rightly panicking about passenger numbers and trying to convince ourselves that they would return? If we had known that the end of Covid would have coincided with one of the longest and widespread periods of strike action in modern history, then I think we would have all given up the ghost and foretold the end of our industry as we know it.

Every time, I leave my house, I glance across the road now at Shepperton railway station and it is with a mindset of genuinely not knowing whether trains are running that day, or not

That the circumstances of the last three years have changed my travel and living habits so dramatically is a worry for the industry – not because I’m particularly important (I’m not!), but as a lifelong rail enthusiast. If I’ve changed, then heaven help the casual customer. Every time, I leave my house, I glance across the road now at Shepperton railway station and it is with a mindset of genuinely not knowing whether trains are running that day, or not. We’ve had so many days with no service due to strikes, engineering works or disruption, or a reduced service because passenger numbers necessitated a lessening of frequency, that I really have to prompt myself to wonder whether there is a service available. Sometimes in the past month, I’ve cared so little that I’ve not even asked myself the question, because I either assume it’s more likely that there aren’t any trains, or I’m just not bothered because I’ve got out of the habit of travelling. Remember the days when you would see a railway station or its presence on a map and you would automatically assume it was open and providing a service all day, every day? Now, there is uncertainty on a frequent basis, a new threshold has been breached which could be irreversible.

What’s happened is that I’ve now, like so many others, reverted to the pandemic era of working from home. I admit I’ve become more discerning about my expenditure too – I’m running my own business, trying to establish it and costs are high with revenue low in these early months, so I think twice about a discretionary train trip. Unlike the pandemic, working from home isn’t that bad now either, because at least other pastimes are available to break up the monotony – during Covid, only Netflix and the model railway kept me sane, but a love of local walks the pandemic taught me late on has endured and of course this time, sports, entertainments and eating out, among other pastimes are open. I tend also to plan my travel properly, so I choose when the railway has a week when it is going to deign to be available and I’ll group loads of meetings into those days across the country – fewer journeys and those in an intense block, with lots of recovery time in the month afterwards.

I also think that the working generation has got lazier. The pandemic as well as rail strikes, mean there is no stigma about working from home now and this has also propagated a fixation with work-life balance. The pre-Christmas strikes were just the excuse that shirkers needed to indolently pack up for the festive period a week early – have you noticed how with each year, people down tools and put decisions into the New Year, much earlier? Before you know it, we’ll be calling it a day in November.

The railway has almost reduced itself to an ‘appointment to view’ arrangement. It is sleepwalking into positioning itself as a product that customers won’t instinctively use with regularity or if they only have a moderate need to make a trip

The railway has almost reduced itself to an ‘appointment to view’ arrangement. It is sleepwalking into positioning itself as a product that customers won’t instinctively use with regularity or if they only have a moderate need to make a trip. Instead, they will only make a journey if it is really vital and it will probably be scheduled well in advance.

Of course, there will be those in denial in the industry – generally those bigwigs who still convince themselves that they are household names in their communities and beyond. They will tell me I’m talking nonsense and that, once these strikes are over, that self-combusting apocalypse I’ve predicted isn’t going to ensue and the railway will always be mainstream and never niche. These same people probably won’t realise that the Royal Mail strike in the run-up to the festive period probably heralded the death knell on Christmas card sending. Mark my words, that concept is over, and in years to come we’ll be nostalgically talking about it in much the same way that we chuckle about how we ever used Filofaxes, or had milk delivered to our doorstep, or when Ceefax was the innovative way to find out the football results. You can almost see us tittering in a few short years about the ludicrous concept of spending three hours of every day commuting on a packed train, at the cost of several thousand pounds a year, just to sit in silence, gawping at a computer in an office and barely speaking to colleagues.

I also think that the sleepwalking into irrelevance is hastened by some public derision at the industry’s attempt to still be vocal during the adversity it faces. I don’t think that folk want to hear press releases or social media talk with the kind of rhetoric that is typically only associated with the industry or similar sectors that lack real warmth and engagement with its markets. Updates around ‘engineering works’, ‘planned upgrades’, ‘collaboration’, ‘stakeholder engagement’, ‘industrial action’, ‘passenger numbers’, ‘disruption’ and so on and so on, just irk. We’re sick of hearing this, we just want trains and with each passing month this kind of chuntering is just viewed increasingly as pointless noise from an era when the railway was relevant. It’s now falling on uninterested and deaf ears. It’s a bit like a disgraced public figure who would be best advised to disappear from the limelight and re-appear once the memory of their scandal has dissipated.

The extremely sad passing of rail industry legend Adrian Shooter at a time when the industry in which he made his name is at its lowest ebb, provoked among many a period of contemplation. As the tributes poured in for Adrian, there were so many stories of his charismatic approach, his entrepreneurial spirit, verve and commitment to resonating and engaging with his own local market, most notably at Chiltern as well as his determination to mentor younger industry professionals. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to reflect on how his approach was a throwback to a more exciting era. The industry culture and conditions were far better suited to Adrian in the prime of his career, a couple of decades or so ago. How frustrated would he have been as a manager making his way in rail in this generation?

Of course, part of the problem is that there aren’t many Shooters left on the railway anymore and where they exist, their wings have been clipped. The strike has been interesting in that train company managing directors have tended to talk in scripted platitudes to the media, or been fairly quiet, reinforcing the view that they are generally powerless in the negotiations with trade unions and power sits on a national and ministerial level. I’d suggest that if it were left to some of the more experienced managing directors to take the bull by the horns in their own backyard, the strikes would have ended or certainly been less widespread. Can you imagine a Chris Garnett, Michael Holden, Chris Green or Adrian Shooter being reduced to such a supine, almost irrelevant role in the current situation?

There’s talent in the rail sector, most definitely, but it’s stymied by both the structure and the prevailing culture that raises disapproving eyebrows towards those who might rise above the parapet. It’s also a sector that needs to be less defensive and sensitive to criticism, whilst also more readily welcoming the innovation of suppliers and alternative ways of approaching challenges of which the sector has often failed – such as the provision of rail replacement, frontline staffing, catering and much more. So too, the backslapping must stop – I’ve heard of and been present at meetings where indicators relating to customer service delivery have been shocking beyond belief, but there’s been a complete reluctance to recognise and address these. At best, one individual in the meeting might have the guts to call out the poor performance, but afterwards are very much seen as a troublemaker. It’s not career enhancing to highlight a sea of red in a scorecard.

By contrast to rail, the bus sector feels like it’s on the cusp of a revival and in the ascendancy

By contrast to rail, the bus sector feels like it’s on the cusp of a revival and in the ascendancy. Obviously, a bit of government support helps and the £2 flat fare initiative for the remainder of the winter months has been a positive story that helps folk during the cost of living crisis and re-engages the concept of travelling by bus as a force of good. As someone who has recently launched a business to market and accredit, from a customer service perspective, scenic transport journeys, I was delighted that The Guardian among other journals used the announcement of the fares cut to encourage folk to get onboard a bus to enjoy the scenery. Indeed, in setting up my new initiative, it’s been noticeable and heart-warming how much energy and enthusiasm there is among marketing managers in the various bus companies and the extent to which they’ve got the opportunity to ‘make things happen’. What’s great for the future of the bus industry is that many of these marketing folk are young and full of enthusiasm, bringing a fresh perspective and energy and come from diverse backgrounds – this is very much a sector that is attractive for a fledgling marketing manager to build a career and where it is still seen as virtuous to look to grow new markets and products, trial innovation around customer service and create exciting local and regional brands, within the same large owning groups who, in rail, have had their clout, in many places, reduced to insipidness.

Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. My take is the strikes will drag on and with the railway becoming increasingly irrelevant there’ll be less of a clamour for a breakthrough in negotiations. I also sense a bigger prominence being given to the crisis bordering on meltdown in healthcare, right now. Summer will come round soon, kids not needing to go to school, holidays abroad, working in the back garden, simple, local, more affordable pleasures (in these testing times), a pint and nice walk or home entertainment, a BBQ with mates and then on the news, there’ll be the seasonal hot summer’s night riot or two and we’ll realise that, along with investing in nurses, we desperately need more police. Then autumn will arrive and this whole annual, cyclical saga will continue with people caring less about the railway with each passing year. Us trainspotters will still be interested, but it will all be centred on yesteryear when what we loved had genuine meaning for large swathes of the population, a bit like my 87-year old Dad reminiscing about his number one passion, Speedway – of packed stadiums and exhilarating racing, seven nights a week at towns and cities all across the UK. Those were the days, we thought they’d never end. But they did.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 29 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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