Despite considerable investment in infrastructure projects and new trains, public trust in the railway is fragile. Repairing trust will require a careful balance of doing what is supposed to be done, showing care for customers and demonstrating a human sense of treating people well and fairly. It's therefore vital that the William's Rail Review delivers proposals that will make a good relationship with passengers a central part of any reform programme.
Transport Focus's fourth submission to the Rail Review highlighted which train operators scored best and worst for levels of public trust over the past two years, using data – specifically on trust - from four waves (2017 and 2018) of the National Rail Passenger Survey.
This research flagged some wide variations between train operators that keenly reflect the passenger experience: Two long distance operators Grand Central and the specialist Heathrow Express fared best (consistently achieving trust scores of 70 per cent or more). Among regional or commuter networks the best performer was Chiltern (66 per cent) while the worst was Southern (17 per cent in 2017 rising to 22 per cent in 2018) but three others were also found to be trusted by less than one third of their passengers: Great Northern (24 per cent), South Western Railway and Thameslink (both on 27 per cent).
Asked to rate the rail industry in comparison to other key sectors, passengers said they see rail falling well behind the NHS or supermarkets, as somewhat worse than airlines but considerably better than banks or energy suppliers.
While new rules that require 'right time' reporting to the minute will make operators more accountable for running a reliable, punctual railway, these changes are not enough on their own to rebuild trust. Attention must also be paid to improving communications and transparency, giving passengers a greater voice, and providing better information about disruption and delays. Above all, to match passenger expectations the industry must work together to embed a right time performance culture across the network.
Transport Focus's first submission to the Williams review argued that passengers should not just be the passive recipients of major decisions made on their behalf by the industry. Transport Focus's fifth and final submission therefore examines passenger representation and where opportunities exist for increased engagement with passengers in strategic planning, implementation and monitoring.
There are those who would argue that train companies can act as a proxy for passengers when dealing with Network Rail and other agencies. Transport Focus disagrees - there will always be instances where commercial interests do not match passenger aspirations. There can be no effective substitute for involving those who actually use services in the planning and delivery of them – a view strengthened by the fact that passengers are funding an ever-increasing proportion of the railway.
It is right that the industry seeks out and listens to the views of individual customers, but it's all too easy to sideline and marginalise these voices. Consequently, there is a continued need for professional, independent consumer representation which can sit alongside direct engagement.
This point - recognised by passengers themselves in research conducted by Transport Focus on the structure of the railway - is not a new concept. There is a long tradition of consumer representation in Great Britain, much of which can be traced back to the post-war nationalisation agenda. This was reinvigorated during the privatisation programme in the late 1980/90s where statutory consumer bodies were established for most of the network utilities. On rail too, statutory passenger representation began in 1947 - and changed radically with privatisation.
So while the model of representation has changed several times over the decades, the fundamental need for it and value of it has remained constant. Dedicated passenger representation over the past 70 years has been underpinned by the development of professional, independent consumer research which can help capture, collate and amplify the passenger voice.
Whatever results from the Williams Rail Review, it's vital that passenger representation is placed firmly at the heart of any reform.
Anthony Smith is Chief Executive of the independent transport user watchdog Transport Focus.