During judging the National Rail Awards and also the Light Rail Awards, it was clear that the actions of individual rail staff and groupings of staff have been impressive over the years; 2019 was no exception. Indeed many staff have such a commitment to the community that use our railways, it extends outside the railway. The Network Rail signaller who organised a sleep in at Blackpool North station with 40 rail staff in aid of the Amazing Grace homeless charity is a case in point, as is the case of BT Police officers who participated in the response to both London Bridge atrocities as individuals.

In an election year, as in 2019, perceptions of the railway industry are more polarised. Facts tend to get subordinated to a particular cause. Despite fragmentation, our railway is still seen as an entity so it is right to issue the industry with challenges and indeed provide an Ofsted style report on the industry’s overall performance against Railfuture’s 10 challenges.

Another issue in the context of the overall railway perception is the effect on general public opinion by demonstrable failures in a particular area. When one part of the railways fails, the whole industry fails so league tables and KPIs, important as they are in terms of incentivisation, are failing against the true objective of how the performance of the railway is seen.

Railfuture thinks that the overall situation is of paramount importance, because it affects our ability to campaign on investment in rail being significant in addressing important issues such as transport, the economy, social issues and the environment and city sustainability. If railways do not perform against these challenges it is difficult to argue that railways are the answer to such challenges.

Railfuture’s 10 challenges for the rail industry and government for 2019:

1. Customer service – put rail users first, be proactive and responsive, keep promises and show you care.

All business corporate plans say this but few have resourced plans to mean it. It is usually interpreted as having a consistently good product and good sales figures.

If we look at passenger growth as recorded by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), 20 years ago (1998/99) it was 892m journeys. 20 years on in 2018/19 it was 1759m, a doubling of business and the highest ever recorded. This upward trend continued in the last year recorded (2018-19) and in individual quarters in 2019, increasing at a rate of about 3% pa overall.

The product has not been consistently good yet people are using the service, suggesting that there are external reasons for this, such as road congestion.

The next indicator is passenger satisfaction as measured in some detail by Transport Focus. Here again the figures are improving with overall satisfaction in the Spring 2019 survey at 83%, up 2% overall although it was less at 79% in the previous autumn 2018 survey. If we split this down a little the figures were 76% for commuters, 85% for business travellers and 90% for leisure travellers. The highest growth (4%) was in the London and South East Area, presumably as a result of the end of the Southern dispute and timetable issues. Elsewhere passenger satisfaction was generally static.

The Rail Delivery Group (the rebranded trade group - The Association of Train Operating Companies with added Network Rail) as part of their campaign to maintain the status quo franchising system would claim that this is an impressive record - record numbers, continued growth, good passenger satisfaction.

However the Railfuture challenge was more than this and there is a strong feeling that rail operators are focused on achieving these key, very public indicators because they are enshrined in the franchise contracts, so are financially important. There is no evidence of a focus on issues listed in the target although some operators, such as Southern do encourage and support rail staff to be proactive, communicative and focused on providing a service to passengers. One of us recently was standing on Crystal Palace station looking vague and was approached by a member of staff with a tablet and given current information.

To say that the rail industry has failed against this Railfuture target would be unfair but it was certainly not a universal priority. It needs to be.

Verdict: Work in progress but the target remains for 2020. Score 6

2. Industrial relations – the need to find solutions. Our challenge – Sort it!

Trade Unions have a long history in our railways of campaigning for better conditions and pay but also in resolving the myriad of local issues. This has been an essential element of the working of the rail industry which has not been noted universally for good communications with its staff. This requires effective negotiation skills on both sides with empowered experienced staff. However the RMT leadership has been unable to get proposed agreements ratified by its National Committee. Matched in some cases with rookie managers as a result of frequent franchise changes, the result has been frequent strikes with no route to resolution - no thought through end game. Furthermore it has allowed the inclusion of government legislation to curtail the effect of strikes (minimum service levels) in the Conservative manifesto. This legislation is now in the Queen’s speech for the government's agenda.

This is increasing an embarrassment to the other unions who still want to exercise a responsible, as apart from a political role.

Most of us saw this coming. The point is that such legislation should not be necessary.

Verdict: No progress whatsoever in 2019. Complete failure on all sides. Score 0

3. Punctuality. Our challenge - Focus on operation

The third indicator is product performance, which up until April 2019 was usually measured by the Public Performance Measure (PPM). This is the percentage of trains which ran their entire planned journey calling at all scheduled stations and arriving at the terminating station within 5 minutes for London and South East Services or 10 minutes for long distance services. The target was 92.5%. Actual was 88% for the year up to 21 September 2019. Well short of target.

Right time matters, and metrics should change the culture so that staff recognise the importance of trains being on time, not just nearly on time, which should drive out the knock on effects of lateness.

A new measure was introduced in April to reflect this emphasis, initially running in parallel with the PPM approach. This measures against exactly right time at each intermediate stop but also shows performance against a range of delays. Performance in the most recent period 26 August to 21 September 2019, cumulative by time band in percentages was: Early 37.2%, On time 55.3%, Within 3 mins, 85.3%, Up to 5 mins, 92.1 %, Within 10 mins, 97.3%, Within 15min, 98.7%, then Worse than that 2.3%. Cancelled trains measured separately was 2.9%. There is certainly more granularity with the new system and the reader can be forgiven for thinking that this is a tighter measure. It isn’t as tight as it appears given the weighting of intermediate stops and the separate recording of cancellations, although providing an actual on time measurement is good. The average delay to passengers in this recorded period was 2.32 minutes.

Overall punctuality improved by 1.2% largely as a result of resolving certain timetable issues and cutting back service in such cases. In another sense though, even maintaining the status quo on punctuality is hard work given the continuous growth in passengers and the number of trains using the network.

The Rail Delivery Group, as part of their campaign to maintain the status quo franchising system would claim that this is an impressive record - record numbers, continued growth, good passenger satisfaction and better than expected punctuality.

Verdict: We are giving the industry a pass on this target given the recorded improvement whilst running more trains. Score 8

4. Seven day railway with no cancellations.

This is essential if Britain’s railways are to be the core of an integrated transport system for the future. The TUC supported a better work life balance in the form of a four day working week covering the 7 days of operation. Some TOCs, eg South Western Railway, had negotiated such an agreement in previous years but there has been no progress whatsoever by the remaining TOCs in 2019 and no real incentives in short franchises to do so. The RMT have resisted this rather than negotiate a balanced solution on behalf of the staff and the passenger, in fact going back on a previous such agreement with West Midlands Trains.

Cancellations are currently at 2.6% up to December 12th, focused on Sundays. However there has been major downturn all week, not just Sundays, in the North West with a second timetable fiasco, this time affecting Northern and Trans Pennine where the service has seen meltdown, and this time Network Rail cannot be blamed.

Major service improvements on a Sunday are unlikely to go ahead in the future in areas where Sundays are voluntary. No amount of additional staff recruitment will alleviate this. A six day railway is not credible for future investment.

The railway is now at the point of being unusable in North West England as a result on a Sunday.

Verdict: Abject failure and getting worse as it affects the future of the industry. Score 0

5. Fares and ticketing. Our challenge - a commitment from government to move from RPI to CPI on regulated fares in January 2020.

Railfuture’s position is that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) is a better, fairer, measure and has campaigned hard for it to be used as the basis for annual fares increases as applied to government regulated fares. The government uses the Retail Price Index (RPI) which is higher. The challenge to government is to adopt CPI as more representative of what passengers face in terms of price rises generally.

In an election year the government was sensitive to the issue but has not adopted the CPI measure. The rise is 2.7%, fractionally lower than RPI at 2.8%, but not CPI which was 2.1%. In Scotland peak regulated fares were 2.8% but the off peak regulated rise is less at 1.8%. The train operators are free to set unregulated fares. In Wales the equivalent rise is 2.7%, but the weighted average change is a reduction of 1.2%.

Although not a specific listed challenge, there is the RDG’s initiative to simplify fares and provide best value, avoiding the need for split ticketing. Railfuture participated in the exercise and assumed that it would have been implemented. This is awaiting a government decision although a single leg pricing exercise trial on LNER is going ahead.

Verdict: The fact that annual prices are based on RPI without any incentive to move to a more efficient railway is starting to register. The government is starting to feel the pressure, so even this marginal reduction below RPI starts to break this mindset. We are not there yet with CPI and we will continue to campaign for it. Score 3

6. Information. Our challenge - GPS must be an all industry initiative focused on passengers.

Good information for passengers is the key demand from passengers and a key Railfuture campaigning aim. There is no evidence of any all industry exercises to fundamentally improve information to passengers although there are more localised initiatives, particularly using social media.

Verdict: The rail industry is far too preoccupied with structural issues at the moment. Score 3

7. Resilience. Our challenge - Focus investment on maximising resilience.

This is about ensuring operational resilience is built into rail enhancement projects so that more capacity also means increased ability to recover from operational performance. The key to this is involving operators in project specifications so that projects are designed improve operational efficiency and resilience.

The answer to this is Network Rail’s Regional structure which was implemented in 2019 with some of the regional directors coming from operations. This has only just happened so we look forward to seeing positive results in 2020.

Verdict: The foundations are in place. Work in progress to see the results. Score 7

8. Programme Management. Our challenge - Every programme must have an intelligent client and the necessary calibre of leadership with the authority and information to manage risk effectively.

The lack of progress on procedures for developing, planning and costing of community or private sector driven projects is a major concern. Local councils must be equipped to provide integrated solutions including rail stations, interchanges and new rail lines, where rail is part of the solution.

In terms of programme management for delivery of projects, the new 5 year control period (CP6) is 2019 – 2024, so early days as few projects have commenced as spending in the previous control period overran. The Network Rail regional structure described should help in terms of project delivery. It worked in CP5 for the London Bridge scheme. The key test is whether the new structure can be much more responsive to externally sponsored schemes.

Verdict: Lessons have been learned on project delivery, so we have high hopes for the next Control Period. All schemes need a strong client and a sense of purpose. The key test is whether external clients can be fully brought into the process. There is a lack of Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline (RNEP) projects coming through and funding. Verdict – work in progress. Score 6

9. Government working with devolved government. Our challenge - Accelerate the transfer of powers to devolved bodies.

In setting this for 2019 we did not quite appreciate the political paralysis of our government nor the focus on a single subject – Brexit, a side show in many respects. Nevertheless all the credible party manifestos majored on devolution.
The voting support for the Conservative Party particularly in the North and Midlands suggests that the focus for investment will be on the Northern Powerhouse and the West Midlands. Devolution will probably happen including control of regional rail networks. Four Sub National Transport Bodies (SNTBs) have been set up. These are Transport for the North, Transport for the South East, Midlands Connect and England’s Economic Heartland and work has started on the Western Gateway SNTB for the South Western Belt of England (Bristol, NE Somerset, N Somerset, S Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Poole and Bournemouth). These are more credible bodies to which to devolve rail service sponsorship than individual cities. There has been no progress, as yet on providing powers for SNTBs (including fund raising).

Verdict: Didn’t happen in 2019, but likely to happen in 2020 with more commitment from government to provide proper arrangements for SNTBs. Score 2 (but this may change in 2020 with the transfer to SNTBs).

10. The Williams Rail Review. Our challenge - Make tactical improvements in 2019 and sharpen performance incentives to focus on performance delivery.

It didn’t happen on account of the election, neither did the Oakervee review of HS2 as we know. The West Coast franchise award went ahead anyway with its franchise model and indeed the move to the management contract for operating HS2. This does not suggest anything earth shattering to come except the well leaked strategic oversight body. In both these exercises it is the government which will decide on the outcome.

Verdict: Deferred to 2020. Score 0.

Overall verdict: Much more for the railways to do to change the culture and focus on performance, and decision time for the government. Non weighted overall score 3.5 out of 10.

Railfuture Challenge 2019