All rail practitioners soon slip into the use of the word “punctuality” ie train punctuality because train punctuality can be measured. It is journey reliability that matters.

There is a danger of perverse incentives with some operators continuing to reduce service levels and in some cases inflate train running times, claiming that this is designed to produce 'a more reliable service'.

Railfuture agrees that reliability is key to passenger growth but that campaigning for better reliability must look at this from the viewpoint of the passenger, who has a choice whether to use rail.

A service industry such as transportation is different from consumer retail. You need food but as a result of consumer marketing you desire a particular product. In fact in many cases the need element is not there at all.

Transportation is different, the desire or need is already there, transport is simply an enabler, allowing you to get where you need to be to meet that desire. Even that approach is now challenged whereby you can order almost anything on line, resulting in a shift from taking transport to go shopping to having the item delivered to your door, in a hopelessly environmentally unfriendly way-in a van. Some takeaways do not now even have a shop, the takeaway comes in a van or bike from a production point. Fortunately, there are still many good reasons why people want to travel including for work, leisure and social interaction. Rail, if perceived to be reliable, can meet this need as an element of many journeys. Additionally rail can do this in an environmentally sustainable and fuel efficient way.

The working from home boom has passed although the mix of leisure versus work travel has changed. In fact travel generally has returned to pre-COVID levels, if not on all rail routes.

An improved definition of reliability

If we define good reliability as “giving the confidence to make a journey so that we can do what we want to do at the destination, when we want to do it", we can get a feel for whether a rail service is reliable. Otherwise we have to address the question “do I need to add extra time in case my train is cancelled?”

With this definition, reliability takes on additional dimensions. It is the whole journey that matters. Does a would-be passenger see a potential rail journey as potentially reliable if he or she cannot park at the station, or if a connection provided by another rail operator is not held or a local bus connection is non existent?

Is compensation a trap?

Rail operators operate compensation schemes for late trains, as apart from late journeys. These are not particularly consistent between operators. Most things aren’t. The schemes are funded by the rail compensation regime with and between rail operators and with Network Rail. In many cases operators make a profit out of such arrangements, as many passengers do not always know what they may be entitled to. At one level this approach does recognise that disappointing and disrupting passengers’ journeys has some penalty and the passenger has some recompense. At another level it abrogates a rail operator of responsibility by gleefully announcing that you can get some of your money back.

Rail must get the product right first

If a journey is for a important reason such as attending an appointment, going to a sporting event or taking a flight, or even getting to work consistently, refunding part of the price paid is not likely to remove anxiety when something goes wrong. Passengers cannot just rely on this, they want to know that every effort is being put into making their journey reliable, just as in Transport for London’s strapline “Every journey matters”.

Attention to the basic ingredients of being to get to the station and onto the train, the train journey itself, and what happens at the other end is critical. It requires attention to detail and empowerment of rail staff to sort things out. The many, frankly stupid ticketing rules do not help. Passengers must have the confidence to know that they can complete a journey on any train if something goes wrong with theirs. A ticket machine not working is a reliability issue.

Satisfaction with rail reliability generally hovers around 80%, although it is dipping below this as a result of continuous rail strikes and recently a catalogue of bad weather events resulting in high profile infrastructure failures. If 80% are satisfied with that particular journey, 20% are not. Furthermore most people make multiple journeys so many people will have some experience of an awful rail journey. It was Rank Xerox who initially had satisfaction levels of this order. The "cost of non performance” was high so resulting in serious attention to reliability. The (successful) plan there, and a business case study world wide was to reinvest the cost of non performance into the product itself. The rail industry must do likewise.

The need for concerted contingency planning

The first person that can avoid turning a minor drama into a personal crisis is the passenger themself. The passenger knows their personal circumstances. Most people, but not everyone, also have access to a high degree of information in their hand. Manchester University’s Ferranti Atlas Autocode computer, where this all started, looked like a power station, but had less computing power than available through your mobile phone, tablet or laptop. We need to ensure that rail information is on hand to facilitate changes in plan. This also requires wifi to work universally and seamlessly on the rail network. Personal observation suggests it does not, with availability of about 70%. Does a passenger really need to log in and register four times on a single journey involving four train operators? A modern interactive satnav does this for the car driver, who can adjust the journey as dictated by traffic congestion, for instance. There is a lot for GBR to go for both in terms of developing passenger based systems and consistency for direct use by passengers and also by customer-facing rail staff.

This does not replace the need for more formal contingency plans, even if day to day operational reliability can be improved. These do exist, often kept in a cupboard, depicting arrangements for rail replacement buses for example. Some of this works but the issue is 'set up' ie the time needed to make arrangements including single line possessions. Sorting of such issues requires a parallel focus on mitigating the situation operationally and providing information for passengers.

Such plans must remove unnecessary causes of anxiety during disruption. This is mitigated by provision of information of course, but also by a conveying the fact that staff care about the situation and are doing everything possible. Removing concern about ticketing is also critical. Can I go another way round or is my ticket valid on another rail operator? The answer is yes in many cases but certainly not universally.

So what is Railfuture’s Reliability Policy in terms of what we should be campaigning for?

We must campaign for the rail industry to deliver a level of service and information that the passenger can rely on for their journey.

The focus must move from compensation to getting the base product right.

A service is not reliable unless all components are fit for purpose: ticket sales, at the station or on the train.

The fact that rail service provision is fragmented should not show to the passenger.

We need better information, consistently available self-serve and from staff.

Contingency planning needs to be sharpened and passengers should be able to find out what the plans are. How can I get to the airport?

Passengers must feel as if their journey matters and that everybody concerned wants to help and has access to information to be able to do so.

Continuous strikes and planned deliberate disruption such as overtime bans must stop. This requires leadership from the rail industry and competent trade union relations. Staff conditions must reflect that our railway is a seven day operation which includes Sundays.

Climate change is real and funding for Network Rail must reflect the need for 'hardening' the infrastructure and electrical supply against more frequent extreme weather events.

Reliability is to be the subject of a major push for Railfuture, directly with the rail industry and with the setting up of GBR.

National Rail Passenger Survey

Xerox Benchmarking