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How can we deliver better rail journeys for customers?

Reliability and quality of service are key, but the challenge is investment.

Rail transport is key to the UK’s future as a low-carbon economy. However it has been beset by a range of challenges, from industrial action, the disappointments of HS2, and a complex system of contracts and franchising.

Many of the foundations of the network were laid in the Victorian era, and efforts to modernise have been painfully slow. That leaves passengers and taxpayers dissatisfied and frustrated as they commute or contemplate a holiday in the UK.

The New Statesman and the West Coast Rail Partnership gathered together a group of experts to discuss how  we can deliver better journeys for passengers by rail. The roundtable discussion was held under the Chatham House rule and has been edited for length and clarity. 

One of the speakers said the combination of infrastructure challenges, the contracts underpinning the railways and industrial action had all had an impact on the quality of service and that “the public is sick and tired of it”. They said that pragmatic action was needed to improve rail services, such as investment, better management in the existing network, and the development of new lines.

“We’ve worked really hard to try and recover trust and confidence,” said one attendee from a train operator. They added that rail needed to grow and innovate to deliver the economic and environmental benefits it is capable of. One of the challenges to good customer journeys is also environmental, they explained, with ten significant storms hitting the UK in the last year. However, the introduction of new trains, training and changes to timetables have delivered improvements.

One participant highlighted the successes of the refurbishment of Avanti’s fleet of Pendolino trains, costing £117m – the biggest refurbishment so far in the UK. One of the benefits of the upgrades was the significant reduction in carbon footprint, as well as additional passenger information systems, Wifi and charging points being made available to customers.

The roundtable was asked what they would want investment to deliver for passengers. “For me”, said one attendee, “we should be looking at the reliability of the service”. Another added that “We need to focus on investment for reliability on areas where growth is happening.” This would mean better growth and returns in passenger numbers and revenues.

A third speaker added that with any investment it was important to get costs and procurement processes under control in order to deliver better value for money. They also suggested that the Treasury should be enabling a fare freeze instead of the now 14-year fuel duty freeze on cars, in order to create greater incentives for train travel and get people out of the car.

“Investment is not just about one train,” said one attendee. They explained that improving Wifi connectivity on trains was critical to “win back some of the business market and get people to go back to thinking of trains as an extension of the office.” They also wanted to see trains generating money for government, “rather than being a burden on the taxpayer” by keeping fares unfrozen.

“Yes, the fair system is horrendously complicated. But there are things that we can do to make it much more appealing to win back those customers,” said a participant. Standard premium was a good example of using different fares to use capacity to best benefit customers. Another participant raised the importance of investing in safety for meeting customer needs. “If you want to attract customers back, it’s about helping them to feel safe with things like CCTV, better lighting, staff stations, all those kinds of things,” they said.

In Greater Manchester, the Travelsafe Partnership is having a positive impact on both tackling anti-social behaviour and improving the perceived safety of trains too. The work involves agencies including the police, council, and staff unions. “If you can bring the partners together, you really get a solid measurable benefit off the back of their partnership,” they said.

Accessibility for people with disabilities was also discussed. “The numbers of passengers using passenger assist…  tells us in a positive way that more passengers actually need assistance and are willing to use the railway,” one person said.

Investment could be stretched by prioritising spending and ensuring that new and upgraded stations get what they need to work effectively without adding lots of features that are unnecessary, explained one person. “A lot of investment in the railways is never seen or never understood. But it’s huge sums of money,” said another person. They gave the example of how train capacity in Cornwall was improved by investment in Reading station that allowed freight trains from Southampton to use a different pathway. They added that there were large stations, such as Leeds and Manchester Piccadilly that needed lots of investment to make them ready for the next decades in rail transport.

The roundtable then discussed the challenges of industrial action. “We are caught between a rock and a hard place in many ways,” explained one attendee, “we still have services in the West Midlands and are dependent on overtime on Sundays.” Another person responded that it was the underlying terms and conditions under which train operators work that will have a greater long-term effect on passengers.

“I think we’re too risk averse,” said another person. “Each bit of the system maximizes its coverage of risk. And when that happens, the cost balloons,” they added. They hope that Great British Rail (GBR) would change that by taking more of a “guiding mind” and coordinating with different parts of the industry, which would spread the risk better and reduce costs.

Changing patterns of passenger use also needs to be incorporated into planning, said another attendee. Monday and Friday mornings are less busy than they were pre-pandemic, but weekends are busier, so maintenance schedules need to understand those changes and respond to them. “We need to better incentivise contracts” added another person, “so that they really deliver to time and budget, and they actually allow those that delivered it to actually share the benefits.” “Rail needs to be part of the solution, we need to get ourselves back to a position where we’re seen as being an integral part of, of supporting a thriving economy and returning value to the taxpayer as well,” one attendee concluded.

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