The franchised rail system as we know it in the UK, a system which has been in place for 24 years, recently ended.  KTN’s Knowledge Transfer, Rail, Daisy Chapman-Chamberlain, reflects on this change and how it could be a catalyst for innovation and reform.

This change has been discussed for years – including through the commissioning of the Williams Review in 2018 – with Covid-19 accelerating both the conversation and the pace of change.  This represents a once in a generation shift in how our rail networks are run, and brings with it the opportunity to build a better, more inclusive, more resilient rail network. To achieve these positive outcomes, innovation is crucial to both offer an outstanding, efficient service to passengers and good value to the taxpayer. Collaboration is key within this, to both create a robust network and to give back to communities and the economy – which is particularly relevant in light of Covid-19 needs and its impact on the UK.

 

Innovation and opportunity

Rail has been significantly impacted by Covid-19. Passenger statistics from 6 September from the Department for Transport (DfT), place rail use at 39% compared to pre-pandemic passenger levels. Compared to car use, which has been between 90-100% of pre-pandemic levels, rail has significant obstacles to overcome. Looking to the future of rail in the UK, innovation is key.

As passenger and public behaviour changes, including our living and working patterns, innovation presents the opportunity to respond in an agile and flexible way, ensuring not just the survival of rail, but success. There are long-term advantages to this approach, for example, according to McKinsey:

“Organizations that maintained their innovation focus through the 2009 financial crisis… emerged stronger, outperforming the market average by more than 30 percent and continuing to deliver accelerated growth over the subsequent three to five years.”

Establishing this mindset relies on preparation and creative thinking; risk analysis and modelling, awareness of the market and changes to usage within it (in this case, within rail and passenger use) are key to being ready for change. Collaborative partnerships are central to this; the KTN Transport team and wider KTN family work widely within rail and transport to build understanding of the sector, awareness of opportunities and access to funding.

 

A collaborative approach

Collaboration is one of the key potential benefits of this new system. This potential for collaboration should lead to increased consistency and clarity across our national network, especially around issues such as accessibility and inclusion. Operators across the UK have done excellent work in a range of inclusion areas; Northern has outstanding dementia-friendly initiatives in partnership with the Bentham Line CRP, Avanti has an excellent calm room at Crewe station, and other operators have their own focuses from use of lanyards to accessibility cards and beyond. A more united system would enable these superb programmes to be spread across the country, once they had been proven to be effective.

The potential for collaboration also goes beyond standalone initiatives; rail data is a key example of this. The joint rail data action plan (published in 2018) acknowledges the need to use data more intelligently to increase collaboration (between rail and other sectors), devise new solutions for running the railways, predict and fix issue before they arrive, and to develop new tools and products for passengers. Through this new rail system, we have the opportunity to facilitate this ambition, developing solutions to enhance the running and use of the railway, enable inclusion, and explore creative new solutions including the use of AI and VR.

 

Decarbonisation and sustainability

With the government’s ambitious goal of reducing the UK’s net emissions of greenhouse gases by 100% relative to 1990 levels by 2050, there is a clear opportunity for rail to address emissions in a transport context. This opportunity to provide a better experience for passengers must be directly linked to this need. This also links closely to Network Rail’s Decarbonisation goals, which aim to decarbonise thousands of miles of rail lines across the UK by 2050. This includes over 7,000 miles of electrification by 2050, and ‘a key role for zero carbon traction – including hydrogen and battery.’

 

The passenger

This links directly in to the needs of the passenger. Pre-Covid, the key passenger needs centred around punctuality and availability of services, as well as cleanliness and availability of station facilities. Provision of information was also a key factor.

Post-Covid, the factors identified as most crucial to passengers in returning to public transport were identified by DfT research as social distancing rules being followed by passengers and staff, the wearing of face masks, and deeper cleaning of carriages.

Considering both pre and post-pandemic passenger priorities, a more collaborative, unified rail network would not only be able to implement changes more effectively, but would also be able to reassure the public that the desired changes had been made by presenting a united and coherent front. Innovation is key within this; both in identifying effective solutions, including those that are most cost-effective, but also in responding to changing passenger needs and use patterns as fewer people commute, and rail becomes more leisure-travel focussed.

These changing needs are reflected in a number of areas; from the need to innovate in rail fares for flexible season tickets to simpler leisure ticket pricing (a long-standing need within rail), to provision of information around general safety and COVID-safe travelling, as well as ensuring our networks are more inclusive and accessible. Delivering good value to both the passenger and the taxpayer will be crucial in the coming years.

Community links and Community Rail initiatives have a large role to play in passenger satisfaction and rail financial value. Community Rail is a grassroots movement which connects local communities to their railways. Community rail activity is widespread across Britain, with over 61 community rail partnerships working along whole lines or across regions, plus at least 1,000 locally-focused, station-based groups. These groups and their volunteers add around £5.6m to rail annually in terms of their labour contribution, plus anything up to £27.6m in social value to community rail volunteers themselves. These groups facilitate local growth on their lines, as well as facilitating locally-focussed decisions to meet the needs of their communities.

 

The future

Factoring in everything above, rail vital to the UK’s Covid-19 economic recovery; building resilience within rail whilst supporting the nation as a whole. Central to this will be engagement with businesses, particularly SMEs, and using these opportunities to support their work, as well as ensuring that rail innovation funding is available, transparent and accessible. SMEs are the backbone of the UK economy; our 5.9m SMEs represent 99% of all businesses in the UK and play a crucial role. They are competitive, efficient and innovative; supporting them through clear pathways and funding opportunities is key to success within rail.

We should be proud of our railways – this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to create lasting change.

Read the government’s official statement here.

KTN is keen to discuss this further; get in touch with our Rail Knowledge Transfer Manager, Daisy Chapman-Chamberlain.