Rail 557: Wanted: a mission statement to redefine rail’s role

The railway needs a wider vision of its role in facing the challenges of the 21st century if it is not to become an irrelevance, warns CHRISTIAN WOLMAR

THERE was a bigger furore than usual about the rise in rail fares this year. Partly that was because it was a slow news day, but there was, too, genuine incomprehension about the extent of the rises. It was instructive that the unregulated fares went up by more than the regulated ones, which made passengers feel there was more than an element of profiteering by the private companies running the railway. But there was more to the hostility than just that. There is a general disaffection about the rail industry – and that means the wider public most of whom never step on a train.

rises brought out some outrageous excuses from the Association of Train Operating Companies which come close to being straight porkies. Its anonymous (presumably ashamed) spokesman was quoted in the Daily Telegraph as saying that the companies needed the rises because “we have to invest in extra capacity to meet rising demand”. Who is the ‘we’? Train operators do not invest – that is not their role. Any investment is negotiated with the government and comes off the amount of subsidy they receive, and these increases are largely about safeguarding profits.

These untruths do not present the industry in a good light. If the operators had any real interest in the needs of passengers and in the wider environmental issues, they should be saying that they would rather not put up fares but that they are being forced to do so because the government wants to price off demand. Remember, no one forced them to put up even the unregulated fares by above the rate of inflation, but the operators’ interest appears to be confined to the bottom line, rather than any long-term strategy. What will happen, for example, if the economy goes pear-shaped and rail passenger numbers start to tail off, spurred on by these above-inflation rises?

the Christmas period, I picked up all sorts of complaints in conversations with people, both users and non-users of the railway. Broadly, there is a feeling that the railway is a bit of an irrelevance in the 21st century, an expensive form of travel that is best avoided if there is any alternative.

If the industry is to survive the next year without being forced into a spiral of closure and service reductions, it has to work much harder at justifying its existence, and that does not mean providing cattle-truck conditions for its passengers. Thus I thought it would be timely to offer some suggestions as to what the rail industry needs to do in what is going to be a momentous year for its future, given that we will see the publication of the 30-year strategy along with the requirements and budget for the industry for the 2009-14 period. So here are a few ideas for the industry and, indeed, ministers, to ponder.

1. Fares: Fares are so complex that they are a major turn-off for many potential customers. And it is no good the companies arguing that cheaper offers are available on the Internet by booking in advance. The headline fares are simply too high and are a major deterrent to use of the railway. So are mean minor changes like First Capital Connect’s ban on the use of cheap returns in the evening peak and the restrictions on the use of the Network Card imposed a few years ago by ATOC.

The railways have to start realising that their future lies in reducing congestion on the roads and cutting greenhouse gas consumption, and that approach requires a new type of contract between government and the industry. It is up to the industry to begin to look at how this might work and to come up with suggestions on ways to maximise railway usage. For example, a railcard that encouraged regular use of the railways should be introduced and, if the companies refuse to do it, the government should make it a requirement.

2. First class: One possible result would be a reduction of the crazy level of first class provision on inter-city trains. The sight of endless empty first class carriages – which inevitably one has to walk past when boarding at a London terminus – contrasting with standing room only in standard is a ridiculous waste of resources. The premium traffic is very limited (and much of it comes from civil servants and railway managers!) and there is dramatic over-provision on many trains.

 Of course, the Pendolini need extending, but first should not Virgin begin to reallocate some of those empty seats, perhaps even on a flexible basis depending on the estimated demand on a particular train? That requires sophisticated load management techniques – surely, though, it would not be beyond the wit to start selling some of those first class tickets to standard ticket purchasers on the Internet on trains to alleviate overcrowding. Flexibility is the name of the game here.

3. Internet booking: While on the subject of booking, why is it so difficult and complicated to book a ticket online? Why do the websites have silly instructions like “it may be cheaper to buy two single tickets”. Surely the blasted computer could work that out better than passengers. And why do you have to register just to find out information and prices? The Internet is still seen as an add-on by the train companies instead of the path to the future.

4. Mobile phone and wi-fi technology: While on the subject of technology, it’s time for the train companies – and Network Rail – to ensure that continuous mobile phone signals are available throughout the journey. Using mobiles is part of the train’s selling point and it is maddening that, for example, on such busy points as west of Slough, south of Clapham Junction and around Welwyn there are dead spots. It would not even be too difficult for the companies to ensure coverage in some major tunnels.

Wi-fi technology which GNER has pioneered should be freely available on suburban routes to attract commuters out of the peaks. If they can travel to work using the internet, then their day starts when they are on the train, not when they get to the office. That would help passengers stagger their day to reduce peak demand.

5. Climate change: If trains are not greener than the alternative, what’s the point of them? In my conversation with Rod Eddington after the publication of his report, he suggested that perhaps it might be more environmentally friendly to build an extra lane on the M1 than a high-speed North-South rail link. Not enough thought went into this issue over the past couple of decades as trains got heavier and were built to carry fewer passengers. The industry has to realise that climate change is the biggest issue facing the human race – and therefore politicians – and must be at the forefront of producing environmentally sustainable innovation.

The current structure of the railway with its quasi-private status seems to stymie any initiative because the industry is so heavily regulated that it is far less innovative than under the days of British Rail. Yet, when the private companies are given their head and freedom, they simply cash in and offer very little innovation. Their aim is always to maximise profits rather than the number of passengers, and that now has to change given the imperatives of the climate change issue.

In sum, the industry needs to have a sense of purpose, a mission statement. It needs to attract millions of extra users, to become so overcrowded that the pressure to improve and expand the railway will be irresistible. It needs to show that it is part of the solution to global warming and not part of the problem. And, above all, it needs to be far more savvy about its dealing with both government and the public. As mentioned many times in this magazine, there is a very strong need for the rail industry to speak with a single voice.

But it’s not just the industry. The Department for Transport needs to set out a wider vision for the railways about their role in the 21st century. That’s not just about the hardware and the shape of the franchises but about issues like the role of the railways in combating climate change and in regeneration. It is difficult to envisage civil servants carrying out that role in any kind of open way.

So much of what I have written about here requires an integrated rail policy, involving the whole industry and government. The abolition of the Strategic Rail Authority was a massive blunder in this respect. The SRA was far more open to debate and discussion than the DfT and that is why, ultimately, we must once again have some kind of separate, independent rail agency which, to save trouble and expensive consultancy time, could simply be called British Railways.

If that seems oh-so-20th century, that could be said of the whole rail industry. It has not yet begun to embrace the need to redefine its role in the face of the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century, notably on technology and climate change.