The rail industry must rediscover innovation

What is the future of transport? Is it Elon Musk's Hyperloop? Passenger drones, flying Segways, levitating bicycles? Perhaps, but my ambitions as rail minister are a little more modest. I want to see punctual trains, passengers receiving exemplary customer service, and stress-free journeys.

There are times when this is what happens, but not always, and not often enough. During my first six months as rail minister, I have argued that our railways are facing long-term challenges which the rail industry needs determination to address.

The industry has achieved many great things since privatisation. Passenger numbers have more than doubled, and they keep rising. While we can never be complacent, thanks to new technology and procedures our railway is the safest it's ever been.

And the rail industry is an essential part of our economy, directly supporting 200,000 jobs, indirectly supporting millions more, and boosting the UK's productivity by £10bn a year.

Private rail firms have done all this on a railway that is the oldest in the world, the most intensively used, and which has suffered decades of underinvestment. That is aprofound set of achievements.

Yet that record of success has come at a price. The railway was not designed to serve the numbers of people it now carries. The ever-growing demand for rail travel has led to crowding, and an over-reliance on a constrained network. Ask many rail commuters about their journey and they won't regale you with tales of a travelling experience that is getting better and better. They will talk about crowding, delays and poor provision of information.

It is in response to record passenger growth that we're spend ing vast sums on upgrades. We are buying thousands of new carriages, rebuilding stations, and in Crossrail and HS2 building brand new lines. In December we had 24,000 people out improving our rail network in the biggest engineering works ever undertaken. All in all, it adds up to the biggest investment in our railways since the Victorian age.

Clearly, the improvement works taking place on the network are contributing to some frustrating journeys, and the Government must do everything it can to support passengers. Recently we applied the Consumer Rights Act to train companies, increasing passengers' rights to compensation. We've also announced that passengers will get compensation for any train delay longer than 15 minutes.

We've set a timetable for the introduction of smart ticketing across the network. And we are bringing back together the operation of track and train, to end the hard organisational divide between train companies and Network Rail and get problems fixed sooner.

There is more for the rail industry to do too. I have argued that the industry needs to look at how it has succeeded in introducing change in the past – and repeat that success.

I believe that a key ingredient in the last two decades' rise in passengers was the way that privatisation unleashed innovation. It led to the introduction of advance saver tickets, better train management allowing more services to run on existing tracks, and those improvements in safety.

Yet in recent years, innovation has slowed. The rail industry spends little on R&D compared with other transport industries such as automotive and aerospace. Perhaps it's because the industry has become used to a world of ever-increasing passenger numbers matched by record investment.

Perhaps it's also because the way that franchises are set up doesn't create the ideal incentives. Whatever the cause, I fear the railway has become conservative – with a small 'c', I hasten to add – so that progress in other industries is allowed to pass rail by.

The candidates for attention are obvious. The industry must go further in offering automatic compensation when trains are delayed. It must go further in offering passengers real-time location information about their trains – the kind of information that many bus passengers now take for granted. And speaking of buses, why is it now increasingly common for even rural buses to offer free Wi-Fi, yet not many intercity trains?

Innovation is only part of the solution. I've talked to the industry about the need to improve disabled access, information on fares, and its operational response to disruption. In a number of cases I've been heartened by industry's response.

But we mustn't imagine that winning back passengers' confidence will be easy. It will take a readiness to listen, face uncomfortable truths, and above all, determination to put passengers at the heart of the service.

Reference: Transport Times March 2017 Issue

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