Why the rail industry needs to get regional passengers on board
Last week we moved into new offices in Leeds city centre. All very exciting, but it meant that I was no longer someone who jumped in their car and spent the morning rush hour sitting in traffic. I was returning to being a train passenger.
Given the stories and bad press I’d read about the current state of the rail network, my expectations were quite low. But I got to work on time, at an affordable rate and even managed to sit down for the journey.
OK, the train looked a bit old, and it was invariably the same carriage I’d used years ago but it worked and the service provided wasn’t objectionable.
In the eight years since I’d last caught a train to work a number of changes had been made and while they were only small, they were significant changes.
Northern Rail has added a ticket machine at my station, meaning I don’t have the hassle and wasted additional 15 minutes queuing at Leeds station to buy one before I rush to work, or desperately trying to catch the conductor’s eye for the whole journey on a crammed train.
There also seem to be two more services running in the peak time between 8am and 8:30am, meaning that I’m not now perching on the luggage rack in the aisle with my face squashed into someone’s back.
Also, in the time since I last caught the commuter train, the costs actually haven’t risen that much. A £1.50 increase in eight years isn’t bad as far as I’m concerned – in fact, the price of food has risen more than that.
I appreciate that my experience of travelling to work is not one necessarily replicated on other rail routes in and out of Leeds and other cities in the North. The problem seems to be that the train operators are not that good at communicating effectively about what they have done and the difference they’ve made through the changes they’ve implemented.
They are too busy firefighting and defending the criticism thrown their way around capacity and stock on a regional and local level, whilst juggling the additional need to tell people about their long-term plans and improvements in order to build relationships with their stakeholders and investors and demonstrate their capability.
Over the last few months there have been numerous announcements about the future of rail services in the North and how, through investment in large infrastructure projects such as electrification, HS2 and now HS3, they will stimulate the economy and transform the region.
And while I can see this is true and agree with what they envisage, these are all future, long-term messages.
The danger here is that the rail industry is getting caught in the issue of ‘jam tomorrow’ – investment of billions on infrastructure and faster travel times and increasing capacity in 10/ 20 years – but what they are failing to do consistently is clearly communicate and demonstrate the results of the investments made so far.
Don’t get me wrong, big infrastructure and long-term messages do need to be communicated, but for passengers there are more immediate issues, and conversations need to be had closer to home about the short-term improvements that have been made or that the operators are making.
I’m worried that amongst all this long-termism, the end user is being forgotten about. Because of all these grand and bold claims, there is a danger that passengers are not hearing the messages that they need to and, as a result, are not on board.
The three main issues that train commuters have centre around the quality of rolling stock, the lack of investment, focus and ambition in the service by the operator, and overcrowding.
These are all operational issues and ones that when you work in the industry you realise are not that simple to resolve. Putting a few additional carriages on a service isn’t actually that easy.
What rail operators need to do is develop communications plans that address or explain clearly why the issues are there, help passengers understand the complexities of the industry a bit more and demonstrate the steps that are being taken to solve them – even if they are limited.
The rail industry is not a straightforward one, with multiple organisations involved in the simple process of one train journey.
Generally speaking, rail operators have achieved a lot within the constraints of their franchises and have a strong and detailed knowledge of the regions they operate in and the people in those regions, yet often they don’t use those strengths to help combat or counter balance the perceived weaknesses.
If operators can show passengers that they understand and have the interests of their customers at heart then that might be enough to help carry passengers with them in the future.
The Treasury the DfT, Network Rail, the operators and the owners of the rolling stock need to look at railways for the passenger, not for the engineer, the investor, the stakeholder, the local authority or the shareholder.