It is impossible to exaggerate the extent of the crisis that the railways are facing. Glib optimism that people will come back because they did in the past, such as after 9/11 and the attacks on the Tube, is utterly and completely wrong. There are two components to this crisis which is why the future is so bleak.
First, there is the immediate impact of the pandemic and its aftermath. The loss of public confidence in the safety of the railways, compounded by the suicidal messaging which I have written about for the past few issues, will not return easily. It’s as if there had been a series of crashes across the network that had killed hundreds of people except the public perception of the railways is even worse than a response to a series of disasters. There is a real sense among a considerable proportion of the population that taking a train is a high risk, much more so than going to the supermarket or a shopping mall. That is probably mistaken as trains, unless they become jam-packed, are a relatively safe environment provided people wear masks and proper sanitary measures are undertaken. Certainly the way that other countries, which have dealt better with the pandemic, are encouraging rail use suggests this is the case and the evidence of research has backed this up. But it is public perception that is important, not the evidence.
The crucial point is that this is not about the railways nor even transport generally. It is, as Professor Tony Travers, the local government expert told me, about the very future of inner cities across the country: ‘The railways are vital to the life of the inner city. All those theatres, cinemas and concert halls and even many restaurants are dependent on people being able to get into city centres by rail. Without that, we risk going back to a time when the centre of cities was dead space.’ Again, this is impossible to over emphasise. The strength of city centres is based on the hustle bustle of daily life and their economy is dependent on it. This is not about a few empty office blocks but, rather, the complete collapse of the major driving force of our economy.
Just to make matters worse, there is a second major effect of the pandemic. If it had happened a couple of decades ago, then people would have had to take the train or risk losing their jobs. Now this is no longer the case. Working from home will be a key factor for millions of office-based workers. Again, I think those who say that things will return to normal and people won’t want to miss the joy of the water cooler are way off the mark.
This is a game changing moment where changes that were taking place slowly will be rapidly speeded up. At a guess, I reckon this will lead to a 20 per cent reduction in passenger numbers.
Speaking to a senior rail figure the other day, he suggested that this may be a good thing because carrying people at rush hour is not cost effective. I think that is ridiculous optimism. The growth of the past 20 years is about to be reversed and last year’s numbers may not be reached again for a generation.
This is why we need a major relaunch of the railways. Not some half-hearted campaign like ‘Britain runs on rail’ but an all out, all singing and dancing campaign to get people to use the railways again. To rediscover the benefits of train travel and to learn to trust them once again. The prerequisite is a unified front from every element of the railways. All the ‘stakeholders’ from train operators to Network Rail, management to unions, government to local authorities, supply chain to representative organisations must join in together. This needs co-ordination at the highest level and work needs to start now. Every element of the railways has to be involved. The future of the industry is at stake.
The railways should simply be renationalised, run by an in-house organisation for the time being even if this government would insist on later selling it. Bringing all the various parts of the industry together during this crisis would save huge amounts of interface costs and allow tough decisions about timetable restructuring and even cutbacks to be made by rail professionals.
This needs to be coordinated by a single body. Since the creation of such an organisation is a key feature of the Williams reforms, its establishment should be brought forward. Ideology must not be allowed to override what is necessary. This new ‘guiding mind’ must have strong powers and crucially be at arms length from the Department for Transport.
It would need a catchy three word slogan – e.g. ‘Trains for all’ or ‘Back on track’, a themed campaign across the network and the media with generous marketing budget.
There must be a series of enticing offers to attract people back:
- A wide ranging and consistent effort to keep the railways infection free. There should be a cleaner on every long distance train and a team of people ready to quickly disinfect short distance services.
- A free package with sanitiser, mask etc for every long distance traveller, as has already been done in Italy, Poland and other countries.
- Some new deals for passengers such as (pick and mix!): an offer to collect coupons and get 50 per cent off like the hugely successful Kelloggs InterCity tie up in the 1980s; half a dozen free tickets to anyone who applies (as they have done in Belgium); a Railcard for all entitling a year’s travel at 1/3 or even ½ off; above all, imaginative new products.
- This must be accompanied by immediate fares reform based on single fares being half the price of a return, rather than the crazy leftover from BR of returns costing £1 more than singles. The best fare would have to be the present split ticketing fare, getting rid of that anomaly at a stroke. Fares reform is feasible since the franchising system, whose contracts were a barrier to making sweeping changes, has been ditched. Flexible season tickets aimed at people who do not go into the office every day are another essential component of reform.
Some of these measures may be unnecessary, expensive or over the top. That does not matter. The whole point is one of perception. The railways have to be seen to be safe and welcoming after four months of negative messaging. Just to stress again, the railways are facing an existential threat. The Treasury is on the warpath, ready to impose cuts if passenger numbers do not rise considerably in the coming months.
Who is up for to establish this body and lead it? Certainly the Rail Delivery Group, which has been invisible in this crisis, is not up to the task as for a long time it has been focussed on preserving the existing structure rather than thinking out of the box. I have been critical of Sir Peter Hendy, the chairman of Network Rail, because of his unquestioning eagerness to comply with messaging that has been deeply damaging to the industry, but he is the obvious person to head this campaign.
Speed is of the essence. Is work taking place on fares reform? Has the nature of the new body to oversee the railways been sorted? The obvious time to launch this campaign is in the autumn after the holiday period and when schools are about to return to normal.
Without this campaign, it is difficult to see how the railways will recover. But bringing together all the stakeholders will be no easy task. The work behind the scenes should start now.
Rail alternatives weak in relation to M4
One of the most radical transport decisions in recent years was the scrapping of the M4 widening in south Wales by the Welsh government. It marked a key move away from the road-based policies that have dominated transport decisions for decades. Instead, the Welsh government set up a commission to investigate alternatives to the M4 widening and it has just published its preliminary findings.
The hope was that some of the journeys currently undertaken by motorists would switch to rail. The report highlights the difficulties of doing this. While there is a good network of rail lines in the area, the network is not easily accessible to many people such as those on new developments that are far from a station. While services between the major conurbations, such as Cardiff, Newport and Bristol are frequent, they are not useful for those people do not want to get from city centre to city centre. Many local services only operate once per hour, and are crowded at peak times, making them unattractive to all but a few regular commuters.
While this report covers a very specific local area, its message is far wider. Its findings show that it is difficult to get people to use rail – and indeed buses – after decades of planning and transport policies have moved in the wrong direction. Getting people on to public transport requires coherent planning and a long term vision which can only be done by local bodies. Wales is fortunate in that it has its own government but the underlying message of this report is the need for genuine, well-financed, devolution to local bodies which are prepared to think long term.