Improving rail performance


The 2019 UK Rail Summit welcomed over 200 delegates to KPMG's Canary Wharf Offices in London, last week. The one day conference brought key industry figures together to discuss the challenges facing the UK rail network right now. 

David Fowler reports on the first session below:

"The railway has been asleep at the wheel," Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines admitted, at last week's UK Rail Summit. Opening the first session, on Improving rail performance: working partnerships between operators, industry partners and Network Rail, he noted that the correlation between passenger satisfaction and overall train performance was "compelling". "Improving performance will be my number one priority," he said.

He added that there would be no trade-off between performance and safety. "The suggestion we have to choose between world-class safety and world-class performance is one I reject," he said.

He continued: "We have to be systematic about delay". As many as 35% of trains were late but within the threshold by which they count as "on time", he said, and as a result no one looks into the causes of these delays.

Mr Haines said the targets for punctuality were set 25 years ago. Now there is much more technology, such as GPS and data on driver behaviour, which could be used to investigate the underlying reasons.

"We have a level of tolerance of failure that suggests we are indifferent to the pain it causes," he said. "We will rebuild our operational ability."

He added: "We will be uncompromising about elements of our regime that are outmoded." This included some aspects of franchising arrangements. "The franchising process encourages people to promise a great deal and then renegotiate [once they have won the contract]."

Promising to work together with the rest of the industry, he said "we will not be precious if it means the railway cedes responsibility for parts of the network to some organisation that will do a better job."

Keith Williams, chair of the Williams Rail Review, updated delegates on its progress. It was about halfway through, and has had around 200 submissions. "We have been listening to what people have to say," he said.

The review excludes HS2 and Crossrail, but otherwise looks very widely at the industry, he said. The danger of a wide review was that it tried to solve all problems at once. "We won't do that."

Among his success criteria were sticking to the timetable: "The sooner we can start to rebuilt public trust the better."

He had observed that there was a "passion" in the industry, adding "everyone can see there's a need for change".

Passengers' trust, as well as punctuality and reliability, had been falling. "We need to regroup and identify the causes," he said. It was also important to give passengers value for money, something that at present was missing. The railway "needs to be affordable into the future."

He added that the railway needed to be able to invest in 21st century technology. His experience from the airline industry was that technology would be of benefit to the industry itself, as well as customers. "People often see things as costs, where actually they bring customer benefits and efficiency," he said.

Regarding accountability, he said "The industry is very fragmented and it's much more complicated than the airline industry. If we're to be successful in the future, accountability and responsibility should also rest with responsibility. That is not always as clear as it should be and it's something we need to get to."

The industry also needed to make sure it had the right skills: "We need to look at how the industry can thrive in the 21st century and build the skills of its workforce and the industrial climate to be successful in the future. There are a lot of passionate people in this industry. We need to harness that for the benefit of the industry and the customer."

Office of Rail and Road chief executive John Larkinson said that on train service performance, Network Rail had been found in breach of its licence conditions. But Network Rail had reacted positively and had proposed a plan to improve.

It was essential the Control Period 6, the five-year investment period starting next month, got off to a good start, unlike Control Period 5. Network Rail was in a better position than last time but the ORR thought it had not yet done enough to be sure of being able to undertake the work efficiently.

On passenger priorities, new cross-industry work was under way on upgrading information, and consultation was taking place on improving passenger assistance.

The regulator supported Network Rail's approach to devolution and partnership in recent years. It also supported the organisation's "scorecard" approach to monitoring performance. But he sounded a note of caution about the limits of partnership. For example, if the partnerships in Network Rail's devolved routes were with passenger train operators, what about those who were not in the partnership such as freight operators?

He pointed out that "the regulator is not the customer" and wanted to get away from that idea, which he said meant too long was spent focusing on regulatory compliance. ORR processes must support industry working, he said.

Regarding the Williams Review, this was "an important opportunity to set the future direction of the industry" and the ORR was engaging with the review.

It was discussing how regulation could support a range of industry structures, and how its regulatory tools might evolve over time. Some ORR processes, such as the periodic review, would be likely to change under any likely structure, he said.