Regulator needs to focus on consumer issues

At a conference I chaired recently, Bill Emery the chief executive of the Office of Rail Regulation gave his usual speech about the importance of ensuring Network Rail was motivated to become more efficient. He showed a graph with the usual upward curve showing that efficiency was improving and had almost continually since the bad old days of Railtrack. But, he stressed that it is time ‘Network Rail stopped just being proud that it is not Railtrack’ and to improve its performance more quickly.

 Quite right, but it was all pretty banal stuff. But then, as happens sometimes at these events, a local councillor got up and asked the emperor’s clothes question. He said: ‘When I am travelling, I am not interested in whether Network Rail is maintaining the railway more cheaply and reducing its costs every year. What passengers want is to have later last trains, more frequent services, clockface timetables and the like.’ Another delegate then asked about stations, and said that ORR ought to be focussing more on improving be looking at issues like toilets, and other facilities, such as buffets and other retail outlets.?

 As chair, I pressed Emery on whether it would be possible for the ORR to focus on these issues. After all, it has begun to press Network Rail into providing a seven day railway with far fewer weekend closures.

 He confirmed that, yes, it would be possible for the ORR to consider these issues but that recently it had focussed more on punctuality. That was an interesting response. In the complex world of rail regulation, it is the government that sets the parameters on, for example frequency and first and last trains of the day. However, a regulator with teeth should begin to look at the issues which affect the passenger experience, rather than just always looking at those behind the scenes indicators which in the end are all about money.