Protecting our long-term future

By Andy Bagnall, Chief Strategy Officer, Rail Delivery Group

There is no part of the British economy that has been left untouched by the coronavirus pandemic and that includes transport which, like many other sectors, has been deeply affected.

For rail, this meant that overnight, demand that once resembled a Niagara Falls-like torrent dried up to something more akin to a dripping tap. Facing predictions of 250,000 deaths (1), we saw people’s personal freedom restricted to an unprecedented extent and as a result, passenger numbers sank to as low as 4% of normal levels.

As the country entered lockdown in March, an effort of war-time proportions commenced. Understanding the vital role the rail network would play in the national response to a deadly pandemic – getting doctors and nurses to their life-saving jobs and vital supplies to where they were needed – train operators, both passenger and freight, immediately agreed to work in close cooperation with government. As companies involved in running a strategic national asset, it was the responsible thing to do.

A cynic might say that with government stepping in to make up the shortfall in fares revenue – the result of that 96% drop in passenger numbers – there was little choice. But I am convinced that by supporting the national effort in its immediate response to coronavirus and by continuing to do so by aiding the government’s approach to easing the lockdown, the railway has enhanced its standing with the public, not diminished it.

Some have advocated in these pages that the rail industry should have ignored government advice to discourage travel, particularly by public transport. There are four reasons why such a view is mistaken.

First, to refuse to support the government’s initial message of asking people only to travel if their journey was really necessary would have been to ignore the delicate balance the government needed to strike between asking essential workers to continue their roles and keeping the country and those workers safe by controlling the pandemic through measures like social distancing.

This balance has continued through the first steps of a gradual reopening of the economy where the government needs to restart the economy but avoid a second spike – and that has meant social distancing in some form being maintained. 

Of course, this has meant a continued impact on rail, just as other sectors have experienced. In rail’s case, intensive demand management was necessary to ensure that trains could be kept clear for key workers and others returning where they couldn’t work from home.

Secondly, the views expressed benefit from a position of not inconsiderable hindsight. Written as they were one month after the first easing of restrictions, and with the railway not having experienced the negative media reports that were seen in London at the start of the lockdown, where people were packed shoulder to shoulder in carriages in the middle of a global pandemic, it is easy to say that rail should have adopted a less cautious approach to managing demand.

With the nation emerging from a period completely unprecedented in its history, it would have taken a very brave gambler to bet that train companies should risk people’s health by publicly ignoring government advice.

Thirdly, after the initial success in suppressing demand, the industry’s message quickly evolved to focus on asking people who had to travel to consider active options or going at quieter times – a softer position than urging people not to use trains altogether which helps to utilise end-to-end capacity.

I empathise with the concerns of people who care passionately about the railway’s future. This is a time of great uncertainty for every sector.

As a nation, we face a recession on a scale unseen for a century or more and in the rail sector, coronavirus means we also face the hastening of emerging trends - like home working and video conferencing - that will fundamentally alter the market for our services.

In such circumstances, it is understandably tempting to focus on the short-term commercial harm that may be done by a message that discourages train travel. But against such a turbulent and unpredictable backdrop, it is necessary to look to the long-term fundamentals of our sector and how they can be protected, and if possible, strengthened. That includes our reputation.

This brings us to the fourth reason why it is wrong to argue that rail companies should have ignored government advice. To do so would have looked self-serving in the extreme.

It has been said in many places - the public will remember for a long time to come which companies and sectors have acted responsibly during a time of national crisis and those that put their own interests first.

By asking people to consider whether their journey is really necessary, promoting active travel options and asking those who do need to travel by train to do so at quieter times, rail companies have put their short-term commercial interests to one side in favour of supporting efforts to prevent the spread of a deadly virus.

The rail industry has done – and has been seen to do - the right thing for the country and in this, it has done the right thing for itself, by protecting and strengthening its standing in the eyes of the public. It has built trust among its customers and potential customers.

This is borne out by polling of the general public carried out in late-May which found that trust in the rail industry is up 7% compared to January. The industry’s net promoter score – the proportion of people who would recommend travelling by rail to a friend - is up 5%. In comparison, trust in the airline sector – which has adopted a more aggressive approach to calling for the relaxation of coronavirus travel restrictions – has seen trust fall by 5%.

The rail industry, not renowned for commanding the trust of its customers, is emerging from the crisis with its reputation not only protected but somewhat enhanced.

In the coming weeks and months, as the economy further reopens and train operators become more confident that they can safely balance increased capacity and demand, the message to customers will evolve again. Instead of asking people whether they really need to travel, the emphasis will shift to how people can travel safely and to promoting the steps the industry is taking to enable them to do so. In due course and when the time is right the railway, like many other sectors, will mount an offensive to start attracting back its customers.

Of course, an enhanced reputation alone will not guarantee our success but it will make the task a little bit easier. What’s more, with enhanced trust comes the opportunity for the industry to build back better, because it has greater scope to confront fundamental challenges which involve difficult trade-offs - like capacity and punctuality, or fares reform - the fixing of which has the potential to create a virtuous circle of improving trust.

That’s why supporting the nation during coronavirus will make the railway stronger in the long-term.

1. https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/196234/covid-19-imperial-researchers-model-likely-impact/

Published in RAIL magazine 908 (1-14 July 2020)

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