Public transport

The Future of UK Rail – a consumer focused network?

By - World Infrastructure Journal

The Future of UK Rail - a consumer focused network?

Public Policy Projects has opened its latest infrastructure inquiry ‘The Future of UK Rail’ in partnership with, CPMS Group and Hitachi Rail. Chaired by Former Transport Minister and PPP Deputy Chair Stephen Hammond MP, the launch was an ambitious discussion on how the UK can radically overhaul its railways to create a truly passenger-focused network.

Never before out of the opportunity of a crisis have you been able to create something that is fundamentally beneficial to all going forward”, said Mary Grant, Chief Executive of Porterbrook, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on the rail network.

When the UK was told to stay at home and everyday travel was suddenly paused, rail systems across the UK faced an unprecedented crisis. Passengers fled from the network in record numbers, with a record low of four per cent capacity at the height of lockdown in 2020. This drop in revenue also brought an end to the franchising system, when the government stepped in to uphold the network. While passengers are now returning to public transport, commuter markets have fundamentally changed and exactly what will replace previous franchise contracts still remains unclear.

Yet while this lack of clarity means the rail network has an uncertain future, this is also an opportune moment to radically develop the network. “The pandemic has shown that reform is actually more important than ever, and has accelerated its need” said John Thomas, Policy Director, Rail Delivery Group. However, he was clear that if these changes are to get passengers back on the railways, consumers must be kept at the heart of reform.

Having the products that attract commuters back as much as possible to rail is really important” said Mr Thomas, “but it needs to go much further than that. ”

With more home working, the traditional commuter is unlikely to exist in the same way. Instead, creating a truly passenger-focused network means building flexibility and agility into the network for new passenger trends. Whether this is flexi-scheduling or adaptable season tickets, it is crucial that the system works for anyone at any time.

An integrated sytem

Due to the franchising system, there has been a piecemeal approach to the train network, but the end of these contracts means that there is a chance for the system to take a holistic vision. If reform is to make train journeys a better experience for passengers across the country, collaboration will be key.

For Ms Grant, “The most effective customer-focused outcomes come from remembering to stay integrated. this can deliver the best value for all – government, the taxpayer, passengers, and industry”.

It was clear that this integration offers significant opportunities but a united vision is needed if the network is to be radically overhauled. Mr Thomas explained that an arms-length body as a central guiding driver would be necessary, acting as “the glue that brings it all together. It would oversee both infrastructure and operations in an equal partnership. It is able to hold both to count and establish consistent incentives and targets. ”

By overseeing the whole industry, this body would be able to create a long-term national vision for rail, recognising both limitations and opportunities. Ms Grant explained “the importance of the guide is mixing capabilities of the network, with the expectations of what the consumer of the future is looking for within that rail network”.

Exactly what this new consumer wants has also been a learning opportunity for those working within the network. Unsurprisingly, in the wake of the pandemic, cleanliness has become a focal point for passengers like never before. However, Neil Murrin, Director, explained that whilst “reliable, clean trains will be fundamental to getting consumers back on the network, there is a retail experience as well. Innovation in that space is crucial. ”

The future is digital

For, this innovation is undoubtedly in the form of digital. This not only levels up the network but in an increasingly digital age, makes the customer experience much more straightforward.

Throughout the pandemic, limiting touchpoints across journeys has meant digital ticketing and contactless payments have been critical. As the immediate health concerns on the railways begin to diminish, passenger demand for this experience is still likely to continue.

Mr Murrin explained that with government and industry collaboration, the whole network could be digitised within 12 months. Yet this collaboration is still a challenge, specifically when trialling new technology as well as sharing data.

Data has the ability to create meaningful change in the network to reflect the needs and patterns of consumers and “this doesn't require wide-ranging reform,” said Mr Murrin.

For the most part, these could be delivered within the current regulatory model and in the very short term, we all need to work effectively together to do that in a way that fully utilises the unique strengths of both [the public and private sector]. That collaboration can provide a foundation for the railway to return to long term sustainable growth” he said.

Vernon Everitt, Director of Customers, Communication & Technology, Transport for London, reiterated this, explaining that their data usage has allowed them to develop and release many new products to improve customer experience. The London public transport network has also long had digital and contactless ticketing which means “you can take ticketing out of the equation, and reduce the cost of fare collection and massively increase customer experience, all at once”. By making this product as simple as possible, the Network have been able to focus on other customer demands. He explained that by working on these and creating a product that passengers want, they simply will come to the network.

People want a safe clean, reliable and orderly system. They want value for money, simple fares and ticketing and they want to see progress and innovation. And if collectively as an industry we can do that, we will get people back”.

Anthony Smith, Chief Executive, Transport Focus, similarly reiterated this message, explaining that “as we enter this roadmap out this period, we need flexibility built into the system in terms of the right product. The railway will succeed over the next few months and years if like every other consumer offering, it has got the right product at the right price. ”

Yet marketing to make sure that customers know about what the rail network is offering is not necessary. Instead, it will be about restoring confidence – passenger by passenger – whether that be through a good experience or word of mouth, until there is a virtuous circle where people start travelling again.

After two decades of amazing level of investment in the railways, the network has improved markedly and the investment was starting to show. That is all still there and it is all still there to sell” he said.

Building for tomorrow

For Shamit Gaiger, Director of Strategic Advisory, Campaign for Better Transport, this is not just about building back from the pandemic. Instead, the long term vision needs to be developed now, to ensure the network is fit for the needs of the future.

There are many emerging trends outside of the pandemic, which will undoubtedly have an impact on the network. Notably, younger generations are driving less and are much more environmentally conscious; rail could offer a greener transport alternative. For this generation as Ms Gaiger explained, it is also all about having a personalised and connected experience. To deliver a product for these consumers, the network will have to be able to start utilising artificial intelligence to make decisions quickly and directly for the individual customer.

This speed and agility within the network will be vital. The impact of the pandemic is unlikely to now be once in a lifetime event as data shows that shocks and uncertainty within the network are coming faster than ever. Creating a network that has the capacity to deal with this impact will become more necessary than ever.

Technology will be a big part of this, but Ms Gaiger fears that this avenue is not being taken on board by stakeholders as quickly as necessary. To truly adapt the network as we move forward, adoption of this technology needs greater support. “In a time where you have the technology, the policy, the price, and public perception aligned, this is when changes happen very quickly. ”

A network of people

Underpinning the adoption of technology is people, said Peter Wilkinson, Director of Rail Passenger Services, Department for Transport. “This is a human system involving a lot of human beings, both as customers and staff. One of the challenges we've got is to make the system more accessible and that will always require a great number of staff interventions and caring, supportive staff. ”

This also comes in the form of collaboration and Mr Wilkinson was clear that this is happening across the system to make a more coherent network. Whether this is across data sharing, running platforms, delivering customer information and flexible timetables, collaboration across people and technology is crucial. For Mr Wilkinson, this integration and collaboration across sectors will undoubtedly benefit the rail network “A partnership between government and the private sector amounts to one plus one equals three – if you get the partnership right. ”

Next steps

PPP is similarly committed to this collaboration and by bringing together the public and private sector within the Future of UK project, will create a holistic and ambitious vision forward for the rail project. The next session, focusing on technology and decarbonisation within the rail sector. Taking place on the 28th April 14.00-16.00 PPP will be bringing together a number of key stakeholders to discuss a more sustainable and innovative future for the network. If you would like to take part, please register here. If you would like to find out more about the project, please get in touch with Genevieve Redgrave, Policy and Publications Editor at

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