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Big Conversations: Is rail ready for reform?

By Jacqueline Starr, CEO of Rail Delivery Group and Andy Bagnall, Director General, Rail Delivery Group

commuters at ticket gatesThis week we both joined Robert Nisbet, our Director of Nations and Regions and Big Conversations podcast host, to record the final podcast in the series. One question Robert asked really hit home to us both. To steal a phrase used by Robert in the podcast, the industry is facing ‘tectonic movements’, one being the recovery from COVID, but also coming at us fairly soon is the government reform of the industry, with the Williams Review and Rail White paper anticipated in the next few weeks. Robert asked if we thought the industry is ready for reform and the scale of change that is likely to come.

The first thing to say is that, as these podcast conversations have shown, the impact of the coming reforms will be felt across many sectors and all of society, from the high street to the workplace. As we reflected on these conversations in the recording with Robert, it was clear to us that what happens next with rail has significant implications for the UK’s economy, the environment and society as we recover from the pandemic.

The second thing to say is that reform was front of mind in our own podcast discussion - we hope you listen to it and share your thoughts with us. To whet your appetite, we want to give you a few angles in our response to Robert’s question – and as anyone in the rail industry knows, there are many sides to this question and its answer.

The first and blunt answer is that the industry is not just ready for change, it has long called for it. The impact of the pandemic has been huge. We saw passenger numbers drop down to less than 5% of pre-pandemic levels at the start of the crisis last year and the consequent impact on the railway has been momentous: with virtual working now embedded in many people’s everyday lives, the 5 day commute to the office will, for many, be a thing of the past. In itself, this would necessitate significant reform even if the need had not existed prior to the pandemic. But the truth is that the public-private franchising model, despite having driven much over a couple of decades including a doubling of passenger numbers, was starting to creak under pressure. The pandemic has only accelerated that trajectory.

The second answer is this review presents a generational opportunity to renew the railway’s offer to Britain in a post-pandemic world. It's not complicated. Customers require simplicity, and they require clarity. As well as brilliant punctuality, frictionless travel, and tickets and timetables that reflect changing travel patterns, they want to know who is in charge of the industry, and they want to know where the buck stops when things go wrong. That means an industry which has the freedom to deliver products and services that meet their needs, and a new ‘guiding mind’ to bring all parts of the network together. If you reflect on that as a package of wants from a customer perspective, we don't think that they're asking too much.

The truth is customers will not care about industry reform and legislation per se. They do care about the impacts on them. At the end of the day, customers care about the outputs that they can hope to see from us as an industry into the future – be it better punctuality, simpler, better value ticketing, reliable information from the start to the end of their journey, or an improved experience on board, it’s time for a new deal for our customers. That is what this white paper has the potential to offer. The industry stands ready to deliver it at pace.