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Williams Rail Review: The end of saying sorry?

Source: RTM Dec/Jan 19

Keith Williams’ ongoing Rail Review presents a golden opportunity to rebuild the industry’s weakened relationship with its users and set it on a better track for the future, argues David Sidebottom, passenger director at Transport Focus.

Passengers waiting at stations today are not peering down the line looking for a strategy or review; they just want the train to arrive as promised. But significant change is in the air, and it’s vital this focuses on the needs of passengers – who are now the main funder of the day-to-day railway.

After all the disruption endured last summer, passengers were rightly looking for evidence of lessons learned when the latest set of timetable changes took effect in early December. Mercifully, it seems the mistakes that led to May’s crisis were not repeated, though ongoing performance problems remain a serious challenge for passengers on some parts of the network.

Without preempting the outcome of the Rail Review, when Stephen Glaister published the final conclusions of his review into the timetable debacle, Transport Focus asserted that, sooner rather than later, it’s essential for one specific person to be placed clearly in charge of major timetable changes. This role would help ensure robust oversight of the planning process and must have the power to hit the stop button when it’s clear something isn’t going to work.

With passengers now pouring over £10bn a year into the rail industry alongside significant government investment, the sector cannot argue it lacks the means to deliver long-term improvements.

The key question now is: how and when will all this cash translate into a more reliable railway that offers passengers better value for money? After yet another round of fare rises, nothing less will recover genuine public trust in the services that the railway is paid by passengers to deliver.

In the meantime, it’s crucial that passengers see the hefty £15m fine levied on Govia Thameslink Railway – and the money taken from Network Rail in the north for poor performance – spent well and in a transparent manner on benefits that the travelling public can see or feel. For example, more effort to automate Delay Repay and to promote awareness of it via station or in-train announcements when services are delayed past the threshold, and more investment to improve complaint handling.

Likewise, as the most recent feedback from our Transport User Panel makes plain, it’s vital that train operators make more effort to ensure everyone eligible for industry-wide compensation claims it.

Looking back over 2018, few passengers will have much faith that the railway will ever operate as a coherent whole – let alone more than the sum of its parts. Nor may many have great expectations for the fundamental DfT-commissioned review of the way the railways are structured, financed, and run.

But on behalf of passengers, that loss of trust is precisely what makes the Williams Review so important, and his deliberate focus on what passengers want so valuable. 

Having made contact promptly with the review team at the department, Transport Focus’ chief executive Anthony Smith went walkabout with Keith Williams at London Victoria one Friday morning in November. The purpose of this meet-up was to explain the importance of placing the passenger perspective front and centre.

Williams is also coming to a Transport Focus board meeting in public on 12 March, where we can take the discussion on behalf of passengers further. Likewise, Transport Focus will also feed its latest research into the review, including insight gleaned from the next wave of the National Rail Passenger Survey due 29 January.

The goal here will not be to design a new railway, but to set out what passengers want any new structure to deliver, how they want to be engaged, and their broad views on future fares and ticketing. There will also be a summary of what is known about why people do not use rail. 

Transport Focus is also undertaking some new research looking at passengers’ attitudes towards the existing structure, as well as how they think services should be provided and delivered in future. As part of this, we will hold focus groups around the country and do some online survey work to dig a bit deeper into issues identified.

This new research revisits an area of work done in 2004 by the Rail Passenger Council, which probed views on things like devolution and accountability. That study found that people were more interested in day-to-day performance than in whoever ran or owned various parts of the railway.

It will be interesting to see how far these views of the rail sector may have changed over the past 14 years, a period during which rail became a more political beast than before – even without the summer 2018 timetable crisis, social media, or various other factors that may have shifted opinion.

Passengers are looking to the Rail Review to deliver significant change that makes the railway better value for money and more reliable. A sticking plaster solution will not work this time.


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