It’s all change for Britain’s rail network

With a reported 19 per cent increase in passengers using the rail network from April 1 to June 30 2023 than in the same quarter last year, it is clear that customers are continuing to rely on rail despite the negative stories surrounding the industry. However, with disruptive strike action continuing to the end of the year, train operating companies (TOCs) are under pressure to deliver a consistent positive experience, all while attempting to modernise and introduce efficiencies. But how can this happen and could the Rail Reform Bill help?

The issues facing Britain's railways can vary by location, however, there are some core challenges that affect all TOCs – wherever they are based. The rail network is made up of ageing assets that require considerable attention and investment. There is, therefore, a significant challenge to co-ordinate upgrades and repairs in a way that allows access to the track and minimises disruption to local networks and passenger journeys.

Similarly, the required ongoing maintenance of trains poses a challenge to TOCs as they endeavour to send fleets out from the depot on time. This can be affected by supply chain issues, with delays in components or shortages of labour causing a knock-on effect to disrupt services. However, it's not only structural or maintenance improvements that need to be made to improve services: passenger and commuter demands, including better connected Wi-Fi and 5G, should also be considered as ways to improve the network and customer satisfaction levels.

The long-awaited Rail Reform Bill could provide an answer to many of these issues by creating a guiding mind that ensures joined-up thinking across the national network. However, some have argued that it hasn't progressed fast enough, remaining in draft form instead of gaining a clear commitment from the government to legislate. With further strike action currently planned for December, TOCs are once again under pressure to perform under strained circumstances, making it difficult to plan for the long term.

Part of the difficulty when it comes to long-term planning also comes from the structure of operating contracts which can be extended on a yearly basis. With this rolling cycle of renewal, TOCs may be hesitant to test out new ideas, as by the time any results may be ready, the contract could well be at the point of expiry.

However, for those who take some risk, testing out ideas over a short period of time could bring rewards in terms of customer understanding and improved efficiency. For example, TOCs could examine route journey patterns to understand the demand across their local area and adjust the customer experience accordingly. They could also investigate more advanced technology, seeking professional advice where appropriate, such as a digital twin to maximise efficiencies throughout the supply chain or monitor train performance. AI technology could also be invaluable when producing demand forecasts as it is able to analyse vast amounts of data, including historic trends, to create accurate predictions for the year ahead.

Testing out technology of this kind may feel daunting to many TOCs, demonstrating the necessity of the Rail Reform Bill and Great British Rail (GBR) to provide a clear direction and strategy that could incorporate these areas in an accessible plan. However, while the industry waits for the Bill to pass, there are steps that TOCs can take now to ensure that they are in the best possible position when GBR becomes operational.

A crucial first step might include improving communication between TOCs, Network Rail and passengers to make the best use of improvement times that would potentially cause disruption. For example, TOCs could seek to make improvements to larger sections of the track at one time, closing entire sections of the route to enable the works to go ahead. This could have a greater long-term impact than attempting to fix sections piecemeal, however, clear communication is essential some months in advance so that passengers are able to plan journeys around this disruption.

The positive effect of GBR can already be seen as the sector looks for ways to proactively work together in advance of the legislation being enshrined into law. By seeking to understand customers at a local level, testing out new technology, refining plans according to feedback and measurable data and communicating effectively with Network Rail, TOCs will put themselves in the best position possible as more changes come down the line.