I’m going to say something heretical. Having spent a good deal of my career working on continental railway networks, the British attitude towards rail surprises me. To be blunt – why are you so down on your trains?
Up to the pandemic, the railways in Britain experienced their longest sustained period of growth in history, with usage doubling since the turn of the millennium to a staggering 1.8bn journeys a year – second only, in Europe, to Germany.
Overall passenger satisfaction in the UK ranked sixth out of 26 countries, according to a Eurobarometer study in 2018 – not bad at all, with happier customers than the French, German, Dutch or Spanish networks.
Let me be clear. As an industry, we sometimes let ourselves down. There is plenty of room for improvement – particularly on punctuality, and on simplification and cost of tickets. From time to time, people have dismal experiences, and become justifiably frustrated. But the overall picture is positive, and there is every reason to be optimistic.
I joined the Go-Ahead Group as chief executive this autumn at a watershed moment for Britain’s railways. Together, the pandemic and the climate emergency change everything.
Patterns of travel are changing more significantly than they have in many decades. The commute is no longer set in stone – white-collar workers, in particular, will have more flexibility on when they travel into the office once the present “work from home” guidance ends.
Over the last six months, leisure travel has surged, but the morning and evening peaks have been less acute than usual. That brings opportunity – to “sell” our service more effectively and imaginatively, and to provide a more comfortable journey on less crowded rush-hour trains.
Taken with the shift away from the car that will be needed to tackle climate change, this is a truly critical moment for public transport, and to take advantage of that moment our industry needs to have a clear, coherent new vision – one with a single guiding mind.
Most in the industry concur with the Government’s view that a new vision is needed. This new vision needs both the strong public sector body envisaged in Great British Railways and the entrepreneurialism and efficiency that private-sector operators can bring.
There are four important steps to get the best use of the private sector in this new model.
Firstly, we must build an incentive regime to encourage passengers back on to our trains. The general public voted with their feet during the summer and autumn and, until omicron emerged, passengers were returning at a healthy rate. We will need to do everything possible to regain that momentum once infection rates fall. That will mean innovative marketing, restoring full confidence by maintaining the best Covid hygiene standards, and ensuring our customer service is as good as it can be.
Secondly, we must take advantage of private expertise. Commercial rail operators bring industry knowledge, efficiencies learned on other modes of transport and access to valuable alternative sources of capital.
Next, we must prioritise the role rail can play in tackling the climate emergency by developing a clear strategy on modal shift out of cars, and towards decarbonising our trains themselves. The railways can play a bigger part in creating a cleaner, greener future than any other mode of travel. It should be the overriding imperative of our new industry structure to do so.
Finally, we must make sure the new model is nimble, and responsive to customer demand. Everybody involved must be incentivised to grow passenger numbers. That means a single entity, the passenger train operator, owning the end-to-end face-to-face customer interface, allowing it to properly respond to customer needs.
There are two routes ahead of us: one in which we listen to passengers and build a new railway that matches with the expectations of 21st century Britain. Then there is another route, in which we fail to understand the importance of the moment, and try to get by using the same infrastructure and strategy that has served us in the past.
The Government is absolutely on the right path with the Williams-Shapps plan and “guiding mind” model. To make the best of it, it should continue to harness the expertise and resources of private sector operators.
Christian Schreyer is chief executive of Go-Ahead Group