The UK rail network is on the brink of a new age. With the Williams Rail Review about to announce its findings, the railways are set to undergo the biggest shakeup since the 1990s.
Technology is shaping the industry’s future. Digital has opened up new ways of working and prompted an un-precedented evaluation of passengers’ current and future needs as operators work out how to innovate to meet those requirements.
The challenges include capacity. Trains are overcrowded, infrastructure is superannuated and demand rising. Travellers have long demanded change which is finally on the way thanks to two major initiatives.
The Digital Railway programme aims to accelerate the industry’s digital transformation, up-dating signalling and enabling more trains to use the tracks at the same time. Communication between passengers, tracks and trains will be transformed as information is up-dated in real-time.
Network Rail’s Railway Upgrade Plan is the largest modernisation programme since the Victorian age, and includes HS2 and Crossrail. The latter is due to pen at the end of this year, enabling an extra 1.5million more passengers to commute into Central London within 45 minutes.
But what does the business travel community really want need in a re-booted railway?
With environmental concerns at an all-time high, addressing overcrowding on certain parts of the network must be a priority if business travellers are to be persuaded out of their cars and onto trains.
Extra seats alone are not enough. Business travellers need to be able to work. They need reliable, free Wi-Fi, tables and a power supply. After all, the main selling point of a train journey is the ability to remain productive whilst on the move. Business travellers who arrive at a station to find the service short formed and seat reservations cancelled will simply get back into their cars.
Easier fares for all
Business travellers need to be confident they are booking the lowest available fares without having to split their tickets. Currently, on journeys where longer distance and regional commuter companies both operate parts of the route, travellers must buy tickets from A to B and then B to C. Instead, they should be able to book the lowest fare from A to C.
Many business travellers’ want to be able to use Advance fares on the service immediately before or after the booked train. Greater flexibility here would help business travellers whose plans change at the last minute.
Meanwhile bundled fare solutions would enhance the rail experience for business travellers by providing the option to include car parking, food and drinks to be booked as part of the fare.
Local decisions made by local people
In large metropolitan areas with substantial commuter markets, local transport authorities cannot decide train timetables, stopping points or how many carriages a train should have.
We believe that these authorities are best placed to understand their communities’ needs, and therefore to design and specify local services. Giving them that power would enable better decision-making and bring the railway closer to the communities it serves.
Consistent digital experience
The digitalisation of the railways has seen more operators adopt e-ticketing, including nearly all of the major long-distance operators’ flexible Anytime and Off-Peak ticket types. However m-tickets, which only work in an App, require a valid internet connection, and therefore provide a poorer user experience.
Not all operators have digital ticketing capabilities, whilst digital tickets cannot be used on journeys that include London Underground. We want to see all rail operators providing digital ticketing that covers all routes and to give travellers the choice of printing their tickets, storing in an Apple Wallet or to be pushed to Android/IOS devices as a PDF.
Rail fares are due to rise by a further 2.8% in January 2020, hitting those who travel at peak times hardest because it is at these times that savings are most limited.
Greater competition on the UK rail network is needed to drive down average journey costs. By re-modelling the franchise system into an open-access environment in which operators can bid for specific routes, travellers will have more scope for savings.
Operators such as Grand Central and Hull Trains have already offered travellers new destinations and markets, and more cost effective ticketing. Grand Central will operate a new service between Blackpool and London from May 2020, with the Great Western network also poised to welcome a new operator providing greater choice to customers.
How do we get there?
All of the changes detailed above are, to a greater or lesser extent, already in train thanks to the continuing Independent Rail Review.
The winds of change are blowing hard, and not before time. The rail industry has traditionally failed to listen to travellers’ needs- and business travellers in particular. The Williams Review is helping to shape the sector’s future for the better. It needs to, if travellers’ trust is to be regained.