Over the past 20 years, there has been considerable investment in infrastructure and rolling stock, and more emphasis has been placed on customer service ... yet too many people still do not get the service they deserve. Passenger satisfaction scores published last week are testament to this, with overall punctuality now being at its lowest point for a decade.
It is clear that something needs to change. So Transport Focus welcomed the Government's decision to commission the Williams Review - it provides the opportunity to stop and think, and then to reform the railway.
This is such a complicated issue that it is all too easy to get lost in models and commercial frameworks and to lose sight of passengers. This must not happen – the needs of passengers must be at the heart of the review. The railway needs to be structured and governed in such a way that it can best deliver the services that passengers want.
Transport Focus's initial submission to the Review – published today - does not not set out a new structure for the railway but it does identify what passengers want any new structure to deliver. These passenger criteria should provide a yardstick against which structures and frameworks can be measured.
So what do passengers want? Throughout all of its research Transport Focus can identify a number of key themes that continually stand out:
The first should come as no surprise: passengers want their service to work - they want a reliable, punctual, affordable service. It is this 'core product' that underpins passenger satisfaction and the extent to which passengers trust the railway. Passengers need a railway where all parts pull together to deliver a good core product. This means aligning industry incentives on the things that passengers want to see and then designing metrics that monitor and drive the actions and behaviours needed to achieve these.
One example is right-time performance – Transport Focus research shows that passengers' satisfaction starts to bleed away well before the current 5- or 10-minute leeway is reached. The closer the railway is managed to right time, the closer it will reflect passengers' perceptions. Another issue concerns the way that the railway manages information during disruption – one of the biggest drivers of dissatisfaction. Targets that incentivise more communication and engagement around engineering work will potentially lead to happier, or at the least less dissatisfied, passengers.
In short, passenger-centric targets can generate passenger-centric behaviours. Transport Focus's strong preference is for targets based on what passengers think – the best judge of quality being those who have used the services in question. To this end, Transport Focus welcomes the use of passenger satisfaction targets within current franchise agreements. If the train company fails to meet these required targets, it must produce an action plan designed to rectify this failure and/or face a potential fine. This drives up the quality of service provided and also promotes a greater sense of accountability between service provider and consumer. This sense of accountability and transparency is enhanced when the body doing the monitoring is independent – any sense of the industry 'marking its own homework' will reduce the value of such targets.
Passengers also want a sense that there is 'someone' in charge when it comes to service delivery. They want someone to take overall responsibility for the railway and for this person/body to be accountable for decisions made and the quality of service provided. They also want a sense that their voice matters and that the person in charge is actually listening to them. Passengers should not be the passive recipients of major decisions made on their behalf behind closed doors. Whatever structure is chosen, it will be essential that the passenger voice is not silenced. At both a strategic and a delivery level, greater accountability requires high-level, dedicated consumer representation and genuine passenger involvement in relevant issues.
The Williams Review provides a real opportunity to put the passenger at the heart of the railway.
The next submission from Transport Focus will consider what it knows about non-users and how to get more people to choose rail.
A final paper will look at what passengers think about the structure of the rail industry. To inform that Transport Focus has been holding focus groups in Glasgow, Cardiff, London, Birmingham and Manchester to explore the issues. The results of this work will appear towards the end of February.
Anthony Smith is Chief Executive of Transport Focus