An­thony Smith

Rail (UK) - - Con­tents - An­thony Smith Chief Ex­ec­u­tive, Trans­port Fo­cus rail@bauer­me­dia.co.uk

“Pas­sen­gers never like pay­ing the prices they do, but are will­ing to tol­er­ate them if ba­sic prom­ises are kept. As per­for­mance re­mains patchy, so com­plaints are climb­ing and back­logs build up.”

“HOW was the jour­ney?” “OK, got a seat…”

That state­ment prob­a­bly sums up the as­pi­ra­tion - and of­ten the ex­pe­ri­ence - of many of Bri­tain’s rail com­muters and what they most want from the rail­way in 2018 and be­yond.

There is no such thing as the av­er­age pas­sen­ger pay­ing an av­er­age fare. But given that the bulk of Bri­tain’s pas­sen­gers are com­muters, and they have a dif­fer­ent at­ti­tude to leisure or busi­ness pas­sen­gers, their ex­pe­ri­ence is a typ­i­cal one as far as the rail­ways are con­cerned.

Sally P is a good case study. One of an ar­guably dy­ing breed of the ten-jour­neys-a-week com­muter, she trav­els in from Bas­ingstoke to Lon­don Water­loo and back ev­ery day. From next Jan­uary, her an­nual sea­son ticket will cost £4,424. You might ar­gue, on a cal­cu­la­tion of some 464 jour­neys a year, that this works out at around £9.50 each jour­ney. How­ever, the rail­way gets the money in ad­vance ev­ery year and with no bad debt to chase.

Sally also has lit­tle choice - this is the only way to prac­ti­cally bal­ance the job opportunities that Lon­don of­fers with the hous­ing prices Bas­ingstoke pro­vides. Af­ter her mort­gage, this is Sally’s sec­ond big­gest ex­pense.

A steady pe­riod of im­prov­ing per­for­mance has re­cently ebbed away. More ‘bad’ days, with longer hold-ups. A fa­mil­iar litany of strikes and sig­nal, track cir­cuit and rolling stock fail­ures has made the jour­ney less pre­dictable. More pas­sen­gers are us­ing the ser­vice, so get­ting a seat and even get­ting on is tighter. De­lays, due in part to the num­ber of trains us­ing the net­work, are hard to re­cover. How de­lays are dealt with be­comes very im­por­tant.

There has been wel­come in­vest­ment, with more to come. The Au­gust 2017 Water­loo up­grade was han­dled well, but maybe too much was promised. The net­work was never go­ing to be per­fect the day af­ter works fin­ished, and deep-seated prob­lems will take years to ad­dress. A new owner has ar­rived - South Western Rail­way. There is in­vest­ment in new and longer trains, but prom­ises will have to be de­liv­ered ASAP. The wel­come early in­tro­duc­tion of De­lay Re­pay 15 (some­thing we cam­paigned for) has been marred by clunky man­ual sys­tems - more au­to­ma­tion is needed.

Sally just wants her bor­ingly reli­able ser­vice back. You prob­a­bly won’t please com­muters, but what you must not do is dis­please them - in­dif­fer­ence is a suc­cess!

All of our re­search un­der­pins Sally’s ex­pe­ri­ence. The Na­tional Rail Pas­sen­ger Sur­vey, com­pleted by over 65,000 pas­sen­gers across Bri­tain twice a year, tells a clear and con­sis­tent story. Per­for­mance drives sat­is­fac­tion. How de­lays are dealt with drives the smaller sam­ple of dis­sat­is­fac­tion - flip sides of the same coin.

Our work on trust in the rail in­dus­try and the emo­tions that jour­neys evoke among pas­sen­gers again shows that re­li­a­bil­ity rules.

So, the fo­cus on main­te­nance and re­newals in the next rail spend­ing pe­riod is wel­come. Pas­sen­gers don’t catch a vi­sion or a strat­egy - they want to catch the next train. Yes, there has to be long-term plan­ning and strate­gies, but please do not lose sight of the present. That is how the in­dus­try and Gov­ern­ment will be judged by pas­sen­gers.

Pas­sen­gers never like pay­ing the prices they do, but are will­ing to tol­er­ate them if ba­sic prom­ises are kept. As per­for­mance re­mains patchy, so com­plaints are climb­ing and back­logs are build­ing up - the in­dus­try needs to gear up for the new nor­mal level of com­plaint. We will ad­vo­cate for pas­sen­gers in around 5,000 ‘ap­peal’ com­plaints this year - the big­gest source of com­plaint is how com­plaints are dealt with!

Sus­tained, long-term in­vest­ment is the key to fu­ture suc­cess. We still have a Gov­ern­ment that is will­ing to in­vest in the rail­ways and in­fra­struc­ture. The multi-bil­lion-pound, fiveyear Con­trol Pe­riod fund­ing set­tle­ment for the rail­way is great. How­ever, all that in­vest­ment is go­ing to cause dis­rup­tion, and com­mu­ni­ca­tions from the in­dus­try and Gov­ern­ment need to be hon­est in this re­spect. Three months of bus re­place­ment on the Black­pool-Pre­ston cor­ri­dor at the same price as a rail ticket is not an at­trac­tive of­fer.

We have done a lot of work with Great Western Rail­way, North­ern, South West Trains (as was), East Mid­lands Trains, Net­work Rail and oth­ers on how en­gi­neer­ing works are han­dled. Our bench­mark­ing of pas­sen­ger aware­ness and un­der­stand­ing of the works at Lon­don Water­loo, Read­ing, Bath Spa, Glasgow Queen Street, Liver­pool Lime Street, Derby and other places has helped the in­dus­try to han­dle the com­mu­ni­ca­tions around th­ese works much bet­ter - as a coun­try we are get­ting good at do­ing this. This needs to con­tinue, es­pe­cially as works at Eus­ton start in earnest. Fol­low­ing our cam­paign­ing, qual­ity bus re­place­ment - re­cently seen in Liver­pool and Black­pool - is fi­nally be­com­ing the norm.

Some want a rev­o­lu­tion in rail­way struc­ture, although from our re­search pas­sen­gers sim­ply want to know who is in charge of their ser­vice. Clearly the in­dus­try needs to pro­vide bet­ter value for money for the pas­sen­ger and tax­payer in­vest­ment. Per­haps one day the st­ing can be taken out of fare rises, which seem to have be­come in­evitable and in­ex­orable. Maybe the bal­ance be­tween tax­payer and pas­sen­ger fund­ing has swung too far.

Pas­sen­gers now seem to have a choice of plans. The Gov­ern­ment’s re­cent Con­nect­ing Peo­ple: A Strate­gic Vi­sion for Rail fol­lowed hard on the heels of the rail in­dus­try’s In Part­ner­ship for Bri­tain’s Pros­per­ity. The Gov­ern­ment’s wel­come de­sire to get train and track more uni­fied begs many ques­tions about other op­er­a­tors, the bur­geon­ing Net­work Rail Route Su­per­vi­sory Boards (on which we rep­re­sent pas­sen­gers) and in­creas­ing po­lit­i­cal de­vo­lu­tion. Just who is go­ing to be in charge?

Labour’s call for re­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion has a sim­plic­ity about it, but also begs ques­tions about pub­lic and pri­vate in­vest­ment. So, the much-needed sta­bil­ity of de­ci­sion-mak­ing which will un­der­pin in­vest­ment, good de­liv­ery and get­ting value for money for pas­sen­gers from this spend still seems some way off.

I re­main op­ti­mistic. The Gov­ern­ment and in­dus­try are pas­sen­ger-fo­cused in a way not seen be­fore. In 2018 in­vest­ment will bear fruit: Thames­link (in­clud­ing the Lon­don Bridge re­build); new in­ter-city trains; the El­iz­a­beth Line; new com­muter trains in Scot­land and else­where; Manch­ester Ord­sall Chord open and in use; cas­cades of good-qual­ity trains for re­fur­bish­ment; and a myr­iad of smaller but im­por­tant track and sig­nals work will start to im­prove many pas­sen­gers’ ex­pe­ri­ence.

HS2, which will ben­e­fit large parts of the coun­try, is still on track. And new train or­ders have cre­ated spare ca­pac­ity. How­ever, the lev­el­ling out of some pas­sen­ger growth is wor­ry­ing - eco­nomic con­fi­dence, chang­ing travel pat­terns, ter­ror­ism, strikes and poor per­for­mance have all taken a toll.

Sally P and oth­ers will judge the Gov­ern­ment and the in­dus­try on more short-term fac­tors. How of­ten is my train on time? How is dis­rup­tion dealt with? Can I get a seat or at least stand in some com­fort? Is the train clean? How much is my ticket go­ing up in price?

So, what should pas­sen­gers do? Com­plain and claim when things go wrong - send a clear mes­sage straight to the bot­tom line. Praise when things go well. Trans­port Fo­cus will con­tinue to cam­paign to im­prove per­for­mance, the han­dling of dis­rup­tion and com­pen­sa­tion sys­tems. We will con­tinue to en­sure that the pas­sen­ger voice is heard at the high­est level when the ma­jor de­ci­sions are be­ing made about in­vest­ment, fran­chises and other is­sues.

“Pas­sen­gers don’t catch a vi­sion or a strat­egy - they want to catch the next train.”

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