It’s welcome news that the Government has belatedly realised that attracting people back on to trains is vital for numerous reasons. More people using trains will help in the battle against congestion on the roads and will reduce the billions in subsidy which have gone into the railway since the start of the pandemic. However, it will take rather more than the million half price tickets on obscure routes around the network to get the railways back to their pre-Covid state. In the video promoting the scheme, it was fitting that Grant Shapps, was wearing an army style T shirt in homage to Zelensky since it will need a military style operation to transform the railways in a way that will convince those mssing passengers – and hopefully millions of new ones – to venture onto the network to fill up all those empty carriages.
The Easter weekend was a typical example of how not to do it. Large chunks of the railway were shut down for engineering works just as the sun had started shining and people were beginning to feel more relaxed about travelling to the seaside or country parks on public transport. Passengers turning up at stations were either being shepherded on to lumbering 20th century buses belching diesel fumes or simply being advised not to travel at all.
Sure, the railway needs maintaining and the odd closure is inevitable, but the market for rail travel has changed. No longer can the railways rely on the captive commuter market to fund the rest of the network. Instead, leisure travel – as this announcement recognises – must be the big focus for getting people back into the railway habit.
That means changing the whole ethos of running the railways. Now that railways have become a consumer choice, they will have to become more pleasant to attract people out of their cars or, indeed, airplanes. No longer should carriages be crammed with a maximum number of seats, leaving no space for luggage or bikes, no tables to entertain children with card games and many seats offering no view because they are aligned with posts rather than windows. On the Continent, carriages often have spaces for work meetings or for children to play, because there is not the emphasis on providing seats which may only used once a day in the rush hour. Yet, in the UK, luggage racks, cycle areas, pram space, even toilets and catering facilities have all been sacrificed in order to cram in more bodies.
At times, the railway operators seem to deliberately seek to antagonise passengers. What railway traveller is not driven mad by the expression ‘see it, say it, sorted’ that can be repeated 20 times or more on a relatively short journey along with a list of stations that is repeated at every ‘station stop’. It was noticeable that on a recent train trip in Norway, there was one announcement for every station three minutes before arrival with the added useful information – never given on the UK network – of what side the doors would open. And that was all. And the catering was to die for –sandwiches generously laden with smoked salmon or herring with crisp lettuce, and a display of fresh cakes that wobbled slightly as the train swayed.
At stations things need to change, too. Lifts are not just for people with disabilities, but are needed by many other passengers. Yet, they are treated as an optional extra which can be left ‘out of order’ for weeks or months. As Sir Michael Holden, a lifelong railwayman and former MD of several operating companies put it, they are not just for wheel chair users: ‘lifts are not for a small minority of passengers. Anyone with a pushchair, heavy luggage, a bike or any form of mobility restriction is going to welcome easy access to a lift’. He also points out that an important way of making the railways more user-friendly is to offer level access between platform and train. It’s simple things like that which have led to the creation of a Campaign for Family-Friendly trains which advocates strongly to make train travel more attractive to all ages. Staff have to be available to offer help to passengers unfamiliar with the network.
And all this is before the issue of fares is considered. The latest government announcement was a recognition that the railways are simply too expensive after more than a decade of steep rises, often greater than inflation. Again, the world has changed and the railways have not reacted. The pricing system is based on a rigid distinction between off peak and peak, with fares varying by as much as a factor of three between the two. At times a limited number of ‘advance’ fares can be bought for use on a specific service but the availability of these, as with the new marketing offer, is so patchy that it is impossible to rely on them. And that’s the nub. The whole fares system needs to be revamped in order to create a system that people would know the maximum cost of a specific journey at all times – and there should be no exorbitant fares like the current peak time walk on fare between London and Manchester of a ridiculous £248.
There are plenty of other examples where fares in this country are much higher than elsewhere. Take a train from London to Gatwick, and unless you book in advance, it’s £20 70 compared with airport fares in Berlin and Paris of 7 60 and 11 40 euros respectively. And in the UK there is a total absence of the sort of initiative that would really attract people back to the railways such as the Bahncard in Germany, available to anyone offering discounts of 25, 50 or 100 per cent on all train travel depending on which card you select. Given that the railway finances would be boosted by attracting commuters back to the network, why not offer a free annual all-rail card for anyone paying, say, £2,500 for an annual ticket?
Such ideas need out of the box thinking that is noticeably absent since any attempts to introduce fares reform have been knocked on the head by the Treasury . The fares marketing initiative announced this week underlines the fact that the railways are being run by Department for Transport as it was spearheaded by its boss, the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps. Allowing government to have direct control over the railways is a bad idea since it leads to micromanagement by civil servants. Instead, as in the best days of BR in its final years when it was reorganised into three sectors – InterCity, Network SouthEast and Regional Railways – professional railway managers should run the railways, not politicians or civil servants.
In France and Germany, the railways are state-owned but the railway managers have a lot of freedom to make commercial decisions to try to attract passengers. Here, the Department for Transport, always leaned on heavily by the Treasury, micro manages the whole system, even, apparently, insisting on checking how much loo roll each operator buys. The system is about to change with the creation of Great British Railways, which will be responsible for operating the trains and maintaining the infrastructure. In theory this is good news, but only if the dead hand of government is removed and this new organisation will be allowed to make decisions on how to run the network. Over the next few months, the legislation setting up this new structure will be published and there will be a big debate about how the railways should be run and passengers will have to hope that GBR will make the changes needed to turn the railway into one that fulfils their needs rather than the diktats of politicians civil servants who probably rarely venture on to a train.