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What passengers want

A piece by PA Consulting rail expert Trevor Birch written in response to an article by Anthony Smith, chief executive of Transport Focus, titled ‘Passengers and the Rail Review: something better change’.

This article was first published in Rail Review

When Chris Grayling announced the Rail Review (led by Keith Williams), he said it would be a ‘root and branch’ review of the rail industry. We hope so. It shouldn’t just take a ‘root and branch’ view of the railway today but should consider the railway industry of the future, a railway that could be very different.

Already, digital capabilities increasingly make commuting a flexible option for many. Connected autonomous vehicles will very soon give more choices both to today’s passengers and those the railways need to become its future passengers. This raises a whole series of questions. Will passengers still choose rail if they have choice of a door-to-door journey that provides an uninterrupted opportunity to relax, work or play? Is rail suited to an integrated transport system where people no longer own cars? Is it offering seamless travel for the whole journey or only a single part?

Growing choice means every industry must consider what the customer really wants. This is challenging for a sector that has many customers – passengers, train operating companies, freight companies, regional transport bodies, national government, tax payers. So when Anthony asks how passengers see the railway,  the answer is that they see it from their perspective but other customers have different perspectives. The challenge for the rail industry is to work out whether it adds best value to the economy by serving the needs of commuters, inter-city travellers, urban travellers or by moving freight.

PA’s work with Virgin Hyperloop or RTA in Dubai on the possibilities of air taxis and control centres, underline that big changes in how we travel could be on the way. It is clear that the transport of the future will need to be integrated, flexible and customer centric and the rail industry will need to innovate and adapt accordingly.

It will need a strategic direction but not as standalone provider but as part of an integrated transport system. Regional transport authorities should drive these strategies and devolution to Routes should help rail work within this approach. Those regional perspectives should be balanced with national strategies – from government for integrated transport and from the rail industry.

And yes, it needs someone in charge. Professor Glaister’s report (into the timetable chaos) clearly illustrated the absence of anyone in overall control. What is needed is a structure with authority to make system-wide decisions to implement strategy, to maintain the coherence that is essential for interoperability and to drive customer experience. Transport in London works because there is one body in control of much of its system and that focuses on its customers, understands the strategic needs of London and has the levers to drive it. Others regions need something similar and this could start to come through Mayoral powers.

Yes, the railway must meet the needs of its customer(s). For future passengers, this will mean much more than just reliable or clean trains but a focus on a door-to-door experience. For government and regions, this is likely to mean a flexible infrastructure that can adapt to a developing economy. That flexibility is critical in a world of innovation and change, and developments like simplified fares are one (big) step towards that.

As Anthony says, most passengers today are not waiting for the output of the Rail Review; they are hoping their train will depart on time, that they might get a seat and that their journey will offer value for money. Let’s go further and recognise that passengers see rail as only one part of their overall journey and that the future of transport may offer them something very different. To justify continued investment from the government, the rail industry must play a meaningful part in that future and the Rail Review needs to support that by looking beyond the challenges of the existing structures.

Rail’s future depends on it being integrated and not just “Intercity”.


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