Covid has changed a lot of our lives, including the way we use the UK rail system – for example the purpose of journeys and the days of the week we travel are different than they were before March 2020. However, some of the system pressures remain the same. Take, for example, the failure to maintain and improve the Network Rail system, the need to meet environmental and technological challenges, and competition from other modes of transport.
Although much has been said about the broken franchise model and the failure of the rail operating companies, the uncomfortable truth is that it is the hand of the state and the failures of Network Rail that are the main causes system problems.
The shift in the franchise model in the mid-2010s, with an overly prescriptive Department of Transport and National Rail’s frequent failure to provide infrastructure, provoked the ire of passengers over unreliable and erratic services directed to the public face of the railway industry – the railway companies – when in reality it should have been directed elsewhere.
Post-Covid reflection on rail must start with the main players. In the UK, we either revere our national institutions, such as the NHS, or they become national jokes, as British Rail did in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. that while the government’s Williams-Shapps plan for rail can have much to say about demand, environmental and technological challenges, and the creation of the state body Great British Railways (GBR) – effectively renationalizing the industry railway – it risks reviving the joke of the 1980s.
There is a need for a ‘guiding mind’ for the industry, which should sit equidistant between the triangular interests of DfT, system operator and service providers. This “guiding spirit” must ensure that the private sector, engine of “traffic” and innovation since the 1990s, is given a central role. The GBR Transition Team’s industry-wide strategic plan makes specific reference to this need and says next to nothing about how it might be achieved.
The post-Covid railway must adapt to our current way of life. The traditional commuter model is unlikely to return as people work more from home and commute to the office irregularly. At the end of February this year there was a steady increase in passenger numbers, but underlying it was a very different demand pattern. Business travel accounted for a smaller proportion of the volume increase. Midweek days were busier than Mondays and Fridays, both of which remained much quieter times for commuting. In comparison, the demand for leisure and long distance has seen a much greater increase.
The challenge for railways, and indeed for many other modes of transport, is to ensure that there are better forecasts of demand patterns. The industry needs a clear understanding of demand drivers to enable it to deliver the consistency and reliability of service that customers expect.
The ticketing offer will necessarily have to adapt. Greater subscription flexibility, breaking down archaic boundaries between services, with dynamic and flexible digital ticketing will be the prerequisites for the next decade. There are already leaders in this field – for example, Trainline and Sqills, a subsidiary of Siemens. Instead of giving GBR the lead role in ticketing technology and marketing, the government should ensure that there is a competitive and functioning system that passengers can access. It is more likely that it will be the private sector ticket operators who will invest in technology to bring about the necessary changes.
Now is the time to make Network Rail’s ‘digital railway’ a reality. There is already plenty of digital signaling, but upgrades to a standard where more trains can run more efficiently on the same infrastructure must be a post-Covid imperative. East Coast Mainline signage upgrades, which are underway, should be our national standard.
Likewise, digitizing systems on board trains could provide predictive maintenance information, informing the operator of likely issues that need to be addressed and reducing delays and cancellations. A digitized on-board system could also indicate train capacity and utilization, which could help inform likely future demand patterns and improve the passenger experience, guiding them to less busy carriages. The digital station management software can integrate various station systems so that passengers can be guided through stations more easily.
Transport is the highest carbon emitting sector in the UK, with road transport clearly being the biggest contributor. Rail is a much greener model – in 2018 10% of all UK passenger-kilometres were traveled by rail, yet it only generated 1.46% of UK CO2 emissions .
Encouraging more people to use rail instead of road would be the biggest contribution the industry could make to helping the UK meet its carbon targets. Hence the need for an improved passenger experience and value-for-money services to drive this change in behavior.
The UK has set an ambitious target of removing all diesel trains from the network by 2040. In the short term, alongside current electrification plans, retrofits and hybrids can and should play a role. The dual fuel source technology is being tested on the UK grid and could provide short-term solutions to reduce diesel use. However, in the longer term, a net zero railway in 2050 will only be achieved through a sustained pipeline and electrification program. Currently, approximately 40% of our network is electrified. Therefore, a defined program of investments focused on deliverable results must be a priority for government and industry.
The Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce, set up to propose solutions to the decarbonisation challenge, recommends the introduction of battery and hydrogen technology as a complement to a priority electrification programme. Installing a battery on a diesel train can reduce carbon emissions by 25%, and industry experts estimate around 400 trains could have batteries installed by 2030. Industry should work with suppliers to introduce these technologies – certainly by 2030 and preferably sooner.
The Williams-Shapps plan recognizes that a great weakness of the nationalized railroad was its stop-start funding. Understandably, there are fears that the newly nationalized GBR will repeat this failure. The current five-year “control period” funding system has provided some certainty to the industry supply chain. However, Network Rail has failed to deliver on its investment commitments during some of the recent scrutiny periods. It is crucial that GBR adheres to its maintenance and improvement schedule in the future and is also held accountable. Long-term socio-economic value, life cycle cost and contractual collaboration should be the new criteria when making investment decisions. Indeed, much of the additional financing needed to address necessary technological upgrades and environmental challenges could be obtained by collaborating with private sector business partners.