Just last week the UK government unveiled its Strategic Vision for Rail and we thought we’d take a look through and give our thoughts as a sub-contractor to the industry.
Expanding the network is obviously a key area of concern. “More journeys are now made each year than at any time since the peak in 1919 - on a network that is much smaller than it was then.” There are a number of new routes planned and obviously HS2 is talked about, there is a brief one line mention about restoring some of the lost capacity, but I would think this might be expanded upon given the public backing. The Strategy says the government is introducing a new approach to investment decisions, but gives no details.
Whenever Rail gets mentioned it seems there is an accompanying rally cry for re-nationalisation of the network. That’s clearly not on the agenda in this strategic vision but one of the core themes seems to be more government involvement with the various franchise owners. A more hands on approach should hopefully ensure better value for money and joint up thinking between different franchises. Oddly the very first paragraph of the report paints privatisation as the saviour of the Railway and is behind the rise in demand. I don’t think this is necessarily the case, demand is tied into a growing population, rising car ownership costs and also the rise in commuting to major cities.
The section that will be of most interest to we train commuters is the cost. Year on year prices rise with promises of improved services but for many this has become empty words with little in the way of noticeable improvement. The strategy says the government wants to work alongside its Franchisees to “ensure passengers’ interests are at the heart of the way the railways are run.” But doesn’t go much further that that. There is the extension of Rail Discounts to the Under 30s and talk of more accessible railways but not much on how the government’s plans to control costs for commuters. In fact when talking about a ‘better’ deal for passengers there seems to be a lot of anger directed to the paper ticket which “needs to be largely consigned to history.” The strategy says that “queuing for a paper ticket from a machine no longer offers the convenience that people expect.” I suspect if you asked most Rail passengers they would take a minor inconvenience if it meant they could get cheaper rail fare.
One area in which I felt this Strategy did give some real insight was in the day-to-day trouble of running a busy service. “Even a small incident, such as a single track or train fault, can delay thousands of passengers and cause knock-on delays as trains and drivers end up in the wrong locations.” When issues arise there are clearly issues in the interaction between Network Rail and the franchises. The government’s plans are to have local teams working much more closely together and given the power to solve issues. They point to successes with this approach on the West Coast line, but without more detail on practical steps on how this will work it’s hard to tell whether more collaboration will be useful or will be a case of ‘too many cooks.’
One area the strategy doesn’t touch upon in great detail is Careers. One of the major issues within the industry is a skills gap which has led to higher wages and the industry as a whole being less competitive. On the front lines we have had a year of disruption for passengers with rolling strikes across multiple lines. The report states that “We will require future train operators to develop effective ways to link staff reward to the success of the business to ensure staff are incentivised on delivering for passengers, and set out plans for ensuring sufficient staffing in key roles.” This really glosses over what will be one of the major challenges within the sector for the long term.
Overall I felt this Strategy gave a good overview on the complex issues facing the UK’s Rail network, but did not perhaps offer enough concrete or practical solutions to issues. The main focus on this strategy seemed to be that the government aims to get more hands on when working with third parties, but it still feels as though the future of the UK Rail network is heavily reliant on the performance of Franchise Operators.