Despite a complex fares structure with inflation-busting annual increases, ongoing industrial action and reliability and performance that keeps going backwards, we still love our rail system.
A critical moment for the rail industry
Make no mistake, we are at a critical moment for rail. The industry has a choice: take the lead in the country's economic and societal recovery or just continue as a very expensive item on HM Treasury's balance sheet. Williams-Shapps clearly identified that the country seriously needs a train service it can rely on, right at the centre of multi modal transport. And as European rail operators offer creative fares to increase ridership, GB Railways are still busy in the analysis phase, always trying to decide the best course of action for an industry so complex you need a maths and law degree to understand the arcane public and private operating model.
Olympic glory for punctuality and reliability
Before the COVID Pandemic you would have to go back to 2012, the year of the London Olympics to see a consistent Public Performance Measure (the percentage of trains arriving at their final destination within 5 or 10 minutes of their scheduled time) that exceeded 90%. The truth is that performance dipped again once the Olympic glory faded into history. So what went right in 2012? Healthy collaboration to make the Games a success? Combined with revised journey times to cover additional services? Interestingly, it wasn't until COVID struck that PPM hit those heady heights once more. The ORR data for PPM from the end of 2020 to February 2022 for GB Trains was consistently above 90%.
Worrying indications of a decline in PPM
Today around 90% of trains arrive within 3 minutes of their stated arrival time, and almost all trains (99.1%) arrive within 15 minutes. There are approximately 18,000 passenger trains each day right now - 13.5% fewer than two years ago. Worryingly however, there are clear indications that PPM is falling back to where it was two years ago. Only Greater Anglia showed improvement for on-time services in January to March 2022 compared to 2021, with 87.6% of services on time. Transport for Wales showed a 19.4% decline compared to 2021. Despite lots of shiny new trains, reliability continues to worsen across most routes, with Northern trains showing the largest number of cancellations.
Alarming cancellation figures
Train cancellations are heading towards 4% of planned services. Operators account for 47% of cancellations with Network Rail picking up 16% through track and signalling and a further 32% though weather or line trespassing. Rail has also recently defined a 'severely disrupted day' as one when cancellations hit 5% of services. Alarmingly, this year, the number of days has already reached three times the level of 2021 for the same period.
The impact of reliability on rail recovery
So as passenger volumes hit 90% and services return to normal working and frequency, what will happen to performance in the coming months? And what impact would a performance and reliability decline have on rail recovery and its critical role in supporting economic renewal? The easy answer is - do nothing. No financial risks for operators and modal competition is weak, given cost increases. Rail is a preferred mode of transport for many because road travel is a poor alternative. Road congestion is rising, low emission and congestion charges can add to journey cost, parking is more expensive, fuel prices are increasing, and EV charging infrastructure still lacks capacity. "Do nothing" is low risk and will suit parts of the industry - but it implies a period of stagnation for rail. HM Treasury will welcome a fall in cost for the railways whilst a reasonable service is provided – especially with a lot of gleaming new trains. But it would mean that customers (human and freight) will need HS2 to link up with West Coast to see the next innovation after the Elizabeth Line. So, in this scenario performance will almost certainly continue to decline, customer satisfaction will fall (along with the PPM), but the burden on the taxpayer would at least be reduced in the short term.
GBR – the guiding mind for the rail industry?
Or... GBR could really become the Guiding Mind, getting rail on the Treasury agenda, and having trains as the preferred choice for travel across commuter, regional and intercity routes. Levelling up, connectivity and meeting environmental targets will benefit all with rail as the engine for change. GBR's timing looks like it is dragging into 2024 and beyond, wasting years whilst rail struggles with increased returning users. The early signs from GBR are not encouraging: without a new home or fresh thinking at the top, GBR will be too late for the short-term performance improvements needed to lift public perception.
A regional approach alternative
Or... adopt a regional model of control. Let the defined transport regions take greater control of investment in rail. Let the regions simplify the tariff structure and decide on the best service profile for their needs. Regional thinking could get the balance right for Freight and Passenger traffic. Significant investment is happening in regional mobility zones covering everything from "on demand" transport to single systems for multimodal information and transaction fulfilment. Why do this independent of the strategy for rail? So government's laudable desire to engage with industry and stakeholders must be matched with clarity of purpose and reasoned decision-making to secure the best possible railway for passengers and taxpayers alike. The second and third options only work if you speed up decision making for rail. There is no point in a central or regional body having the power to guide strategy for rail if change still takes years to implement.
Making decisions now for improved performance across the industry
So unless decisions are made very soon on structure, service profile and pricing, rail looks set to be just another mode of transport, but with ever-decreasing performance but at a time when its role in economic recovery, levelling up and decarbonisation have scarcely been more important. Those of us intimately involved with rail, and who love the railways, know that it is so much more important than that.
Martin Howell is Director of Transport Markets at Worldline, a global leader in secure payments and trusted transactions.