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Rail staff working together to protect the railway’s future

By Steve Montgomery, Chair of the Rail Delivery Group and Managing Director, First Rail

During the pandemic, the vital role that the railway and our people are playing in the nation’s resilience has been plain for all to see.

As public health restrictions were needed, we kept people, including key workers, moving with resilient timetables that also reduced costs to the taxpayer. As life has adapted to a new and still uncertain normal, questions around how we build back a clean, fair recovery have come to the fore, with rail positioned to make a vital contribution. Yet the way we live and work has changed, with many more people using cars and many businesses left struggling because fewer people are taking the train.

Our industry’s place at the centre of the country’s resilience and recovery is why government stepped in to keep trains running when passengers were mostly instructed to work from home in the first lockdown. The majority of them have continued to do so and, so far, around £15 billion in taxpayer support has been provided since March 2020. This in itself has meant big changes in how the industry works – with all income generated from train operators now going directly back to the taxpayer in return.

Overall, passenger numbers just tipped past 70% of pre-pandemic levels in late November before the Omicron variant led to fewer people travelling, with the figures showing that the proportion of journeys halved to 35% at the turn of the year. Journeys are unlikely to reach 2019 levels for some time and ORR financial data has shown that industry costs have continued to rise during the pandemic.

Almost two years on, it is clear that the world has been changed by the pandemic and so has the railway’s place in it. Greater home working for many commuters is here to stay. This saw commuter and business travel – those regular daily customers who used to underpin the industry’s finances – reach only around 50% of pre-pandemic levels while leisure journeys on some routes were back to their usual numbers. While people were eager to travel by train for leisure last summer and autumn, train companies will need to continue to offer a compelling proposition to win their discretionary spend, particularly as international travel opportunities begin to open up again. Anything that hits that confidence will hamper further growth and impact the sustainability of services.

It is vital that the railway adapts to this post-pandemic world, as every other sector of the economy is having to do. On the one side, this means winning back passengers by providing a great customer experience. Easy ticket buying, reliable trains and great customer service. On the other, it means an honest appraisal of how we work to see whether there are better ways to do things so that we are not taking more than our fair share of taxpayers’ money.

These twin goals require the whole industry to work together. Achieving them is key to putting the railway on a sustainable financial footing so that that we can secure a bright future for our industry, for the people who work in it now and for the generations yet to join us.

Failure to do this risks an era of decline where services are reduced to save money and because fewer people are travelling.

The alternative is to act now to lay solid foundations for the railway to rebuild and renew itself at the centre of the nation’s transport system, connecting communities and helping to deliver a green and prosperous future.

Working together across the industry, we began by running a multi-million-pound advertising campaign to attract passengers back to rail and by making it easier for people who are now commuting less frequently than before. Government commitments in their recent spending review will see technology, already familiar in the capital, rolled out nationwide to make ticket buying far simpler.

Elsewhere, the change that is needed will not be easy. Through an ‘Enabling Framework Agreement’ between rail companies and trades unions last year, specialists from across the sector are working to review working practices which could risk holding back the change that is needed. This includes making colleagues more visible and better able to support passengers at stations and on trains and offering greater flexibility so that our people can work on alternative services to help passengers during disruption, minimising delays.

We are committed to doing all we can to take our colleagues with us as we change and to treat them fairly. Redeployment and re-training wherever possible. A voluntary severance scheme ran for those who wished to leave the industry. We committed to no compulsory redundancies in 2021 as part of the Enabling Framework Agreement.

All rail companies have demonstrated that they want to work constructively with trade unions to build a future for the railway which secures high-quality jobs for those employees that want them for as long as they want them, which supports all parts of the country to thrive as we re-build and which leaves no space on the network unsafe for our customers. As we look ahead to 2022, these are the principles that should guide us all.

This article first appeared in RAIL magazine.

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