Welcome to the 'Recalibrating Britain's Railways' event series—a thought-provoking journey that challenges conventions and reshapes the railway landscape.
As we approach the upcoming events in Birmingham, Manchester, London, and online throughout October, we're excited to unveil a linked collection of thought pieces. These pieces aim to provide deep insights, ignite meaningful debates, and generate excitement for what lies ahead.
Join us in this transformative exploration as we delve into critical topics, spark innovation, and collectively recalibrate Britain's railway.
Awaiting reform, rail needs to find some form
There’s often a bit of nostalgia for other, different, better times on the railway. Recently I’ve even picked up some for what, in the heady days of the Williams Review, rail reform was set to do. But if Great British Railways (GBR) is about a simpler, better railway, then we can probably all agree that in the meantime the railway simply needs to do better.
Three recent things brought that home to me. First a conversation with a senior leader in a city region combined authority, who reminded me that rail has enjoyed a privileged position it’s in danger of losing: the focus and investment it gets has long been disproportionate to its minority share of journeys. That might be a tough message for those of us who believe strongly in the social, economic and environmental value of rail, but it was then forcefully emphasised in an Independent article by Simon Calder: “Enjoy that subsidy while it lasts”. But where the article really, and sadly, chimed with my own experience is describing the travelling public’s loss of faith in rail services, and the impact that is having on demand. A succession of family, friends and even industry colleagues have all said things to me like “we’d visit more often, but…”; “we’d go into the city at weekends, but…” and “I’d be in the office more, but…”. and the ‘but’ is always the same: “I just can’t rely on the trains”.
And when I look at the figures for passenger service recovery in our cities, taking Birmingham as an example (which is at the top DfT’s chart here, in the middle of the range and closest to home for me personally), I see rail stubbornly at 80% of pre-pandemic passenger levels, whereas taxi and car use is at 95%.
So, there’s business to be won, and whatever the timing and extent of reform, right now the railway has to rediscover some form, and perform.
Lessons from the not-so-distant past
Forgive me my own brief look back through some rose-tinted spectacles, at a time not all that long ago in the grand sweep of railway history, and probably not very much-loved. I am nostalgic not for what the industry looked like, its shape and structure, or for its characters and personalities, but for what it did.
At the end of the noughties and early 2010s, as an industry we delivered 5 successive years where overall PPM was above 90%. As the chart shows, from January 2009 to December 2012, we achieved over 90% in 13 out of 16 quarters – a level of consistency not seen since. By contrast, excluding April 2020 to September 2021 for obvious reasons, we’ve only achieved one quarter where PPM was more than 90% since 2015.
We’d rebuilt trust and credibility after a succession of crises and disruption, from the tragic rail crashes of the late ’90s and early 2000s, to scrutiny of the industry’s response to the 2002 autumn storms and 2003 summer heatwave. By 2008, even the National Audit Office reported favourably that “Network Rail (had) succeeded in working with the Train Operating Companies to reduce the number of incidents on the passenger network” to pre-2000 levels.
That didn’t happen by accident; it was fundamental to passenger satisfaction and growth, to funder confidence and it underpinned the commercial success of the railway.
We’d salvaged, seen through, and made the best of a major programme with a troubled history – the West Coast Route Modernisation.
On the back of that we’d delivered, bedded in and then incrementally improved on the 2008 timetable change, which made major changes to CrossCountry and all operators on the West Coast Main Line and (for all the previous project challenges) was relatively well controlled, specified and governed as an industry change.
We'd delivered a big improvement in asset sustainability and reliability – as figures in Network Rail’s Strategic Business Plan for CP7 show, service-affecting asset failures reduced by a third from around 55,000 a year in the early 2000s to less than 35,000 by 2010/11.
Finally, my personal experience at the time, was that joint performance improvement planning was of the highest possible profile and focus for regions and operators at executive level. It was also pretty collaborative, stable and mature in terms of the approaches, tools and technology available at the time.
Today after a succession of different crises, the travelling – or less-travelling – public again need us to rebuild trust and credibility, and so do those who fund and specify rail services.
So, my prescription looks back to that example of relatively recent history: Deliver, deliver, deliver. Deliver our projects; deliver robust timetables; and deliver performance plans.
How we manage projects to give our funders confidence that costs and schedules will be kept to is a large topic in itself and one for another time. But I have seen how collaborative and data-enabled industry approaches to integration can give confidence that benefits will be realised.
We do need to see through and deliver on committed major programmes, including HS2, East West Rail and Transpennine Route Upgrade. The industry will get no credit and magic up no money by cutting and running. Instead we need pragmatism, collaboration and integrated industry working.
Because we also need to give confidence that rail will resolve its own issues and risks rapidly and without recourse to more money.
We need the same collaboration, rigour and perform-first focus on the management of timetable changes, so they deliver our fundamental promise to passengers. The December 2022 Manchester example, which reduced delays by 40% while maintaining passenger capacity at peak times is, a pretty good one.
We need the same level of focus, attention and discipline on the fundamental process of collaborative performance improvement.
Today’s data, technology and modelling capabilities give us even more of a chance, in support of the practical nitty gritty of planning with a clear view of risks, sustaining focus on delivery, reviewing, learning, and going again.
To me that means collaborative industry processes with high-profile leadership support, and plans formed on the basis of clear, well-presented evidence not just for what the risks are, but how improvement plans address them.
Because we will need to give our passengers and funders clear, objective evidence of progress.
It’s not the sexy, exciting stuff of industry and organisational change, but to rebuild the commercial sustainability of the railway, before we reform, we’ve got to perform.