Rail commuters want 'a better-aligned system and high-quality services'

Posted On: 
26th February 2018

The Chief Executive of Transport Focus writes on behalf of hard-pressed commuters and calls for a better aligned rail system in Great Britain, with their interests 'right at the heart of railway thinking'.

Anthony Smith is the Chief Exec of Transport Focus
Transport Focus

Polly Smith spends £5,828 on her annual season ticket from Gravesend in Kent to Charing Cross in London. Polly, along with her fellow commuters, really cares about the trains being on time and getting a seat. Does she care who owns or runs the railway? Probably not, as value for money dominates her thinking. Like all commuters Polly really relies on the railway to make her life work.

However, the debate about how the railways are owned, structured and operated has exploded again. The political consensus has changed and the third failure of the East Coast franchise has cast a harsh spotlight on how difficult it is to get some of these contracts to work: predicting the future is difficult!

Britain’s railways are now run under a whole host of different arrangements. Longer and shorter franchises such as Merseyrail and South Western Railway. Deep and shallower ‘alliances’ with Network Rail such as Scotrail and Northern. Management-type contracts such as Govia Thameslink Railway and concessions such as the London Overground. ‘Open access’ privately run operators, Grand Central, Heathrow Express and Hull Trains are also in the mix.

So which arrangements work best for passengers? Every year we speak to over 65,000 passengers as part of our National Rail Passenger Survey. This representative sample of Great Britain’s rail passenger journeys is used to measure performance in franchises among other things. With nearly 12 years’ worth of data the NRPS forms a powerful picture of rail passenger satisfaction.

While the open access operators score very well (Grand Central 96 per cent overall satisfaction, Heathrow Express 91 per cent and Hull Trains 95 per cent) so do some of the franchised operations.

Virgin Trains East Coast, despite its difficulties, is the highest-rated franchised operator with 92 per cent overall satisfaction. So, does the competition from the open access operators drive this? Probably to some degree but Virgin Trains West Coast, with less on-rail competition, scores 91 per cent.

Investment clearly can make a difference. Scores for Thameslink, since the renewal of the train fleet, have gone up considerably – helped by performance stabilising as well. However, the considerable investment at Waterloo last year has still to be appreciated by passengers as patchy performance saw South Western Railway’s scores dip to 75 per cent - we are working with the operator and Network Rail to help reverse this.

So it is hard to draw conclusions from passenger satisfaction work about railway structure. Network Rail performance is key to delivery. Different situations require different solutions. Getting the contract right is not easy but is absolutely key.

The top factor underpinning satisfaction is performance. Passengers’ priorities for improvement across commuters, business and leisure journeys, different ticket types, train companies, regions, nations and even gender are remarkably similar. Performance improvement, value, getting a seat and better information during disruption dominate. These are the basic expectations of the railway and passengers need them delivered every day.

The diversity of the industry, with train companies, Network Rail, rolling stock companies and others, makes co-ordinating change harder. Moves towards joining train and track more closely make sense but might be hard to achieve in the current fragmented structure. Fares reform is very difficult with so many commercial interests in play.

When we have asked about structure passengers simply say ‘I want to know who is in charge? Who is responsible for my line? Will they deliver services I can rely on?’

A better-aligned system has to be a priority. The end goal is consistently high-quality services for passengers, with their interests right at the heart of railway thinking.