Six Recommendations For a UK Rail Revolution

our summary of the BTA's whitepaper: "Getting Our Trains Back on Track"

The UK rail industry has been under serious scrutiny over the past few years, with rising ticket prices, driver shortages, and service-paralyzing strikes placing the plight of train travel at the front and centre of the national consciousness. 

Even before the pandemic brought the leisure and business travel industries to a halt, train-operating companies had started to uncover cracks in an aging rail infrastructure. Passengers increasingly felt shortchanged by cancelled services and route delays on trains in desperate need of refurbishment. The ruptures caused by COVID-19 were just a few drops in a volatile concoction that had been brewing for years.

While other industries have recovered admirably post-lockdown, the rail industry has continued to lag behind. According to figures sourced by the Business Travel Association (BTA), rail passenger kilometres travelled between September 2022 to September 2023 – a good litmus test for the health of rail service usage – only recovered to around 85% of the levels seen in the pre-pandemic year leading up to September 2019. Compare this to road traffic levels in the same periods and you start to see the problem – road usage is just 2.7% below pre-COVID levels.

In light of these damning statistics, amplified by widespread media coverage of perceived failings across the UK rail industry, the BTA has published a whitepaper titled: “Getting Our Trains Back on Track! Putting Passengers First” which outlines their recommendations for a positive, passenger-led revolution for train travel. In this article, we take a deeper look at their analysis and give an overview of their key findings and advice.

The Future of UK Rail?

 

The Business Travel Association (BTA) has called for a revolution to address the issues that haunt the UK rail industry. In this article, we take a closer look at 6 recommendations they believe will lead to a brighter future for train travel. CLICK BELOW to read more:

  1. ➡️ Creating a passenger-led railway system
  2. ➡️ Learning lessons from international rail companies
  3. ➡️ Tackling train trash and poor facilities
  4. ➡️ Simplifying ticket systems
  5. ➡️ Increasing transparency of rail information
  6. ➡️ Encouraging passenger champions

 

1.

Creating a passenger-led railway service that increases engagement 

“Since the end of the pandemic a nervousness has set in for travellers about committing themselves to train journeys which may quickly spiral into hours of delay or slow running with only minimal facilities to support them.”

The establishment of a railway system that puts passengers first is essential for positive change, according to the BTA. With delays and cancellations becoming more commonplace amid a tired infrastructure, business travellers seem to have become increasingly hesitant to risk train travel, with many choosing to work from home and save on fares instead. 

The whitepaper extols the importance of casting a critical eye over any major reforms as part of the proposed changeover from Network Rail to Great British Railways, ensuring that practical, passenger-led improvements are not lost in the fanfare of the rebrand. The business travel community, as frequent travellers, can play a pivotal role in ensuring that the transition is both smooth and productive. Their voices, amplified by the BTA working closely with the Great British Railways Transition Team (GBRTT), can help maximise rail user engagement and real-time improvements that transcend the “dry legal language” of formal organisational changes proposed by the touted Rail Reform Bill. 

2.

Lessons need to be learned from international rail companies about how to improve train travel

“Business travellers and all rail passengers are entitled to ask for a British railway system that clearly and consistently compares itself to global best practice.”

The BTA have expressed their belief in the importance of asking questions which attempt to tackle concerns about why some rail services work better abroad. The train travel experience in Japan is often considered the gold standard for rail services across the globe, its reliable efficiency serving as a stark reminder of the failings often seen across the UK network. Indeed, Japanese inter-city trains run almost to an exact minute of arrival and departure while British trains continue to be plagued by delays. 

According to the BTA, business rail travel across Europe and worldwide is on the rise thanks to consistent funding of rail product offerings, competitive pricing, and the seamless integration of multi-modal transport in the customer journey. This points to an idyll for UK rail that is obtainable rather than existing in the realms of fantasy, its integration beginning with passengers holding service providers to the same high standards as their international counterparts.

%

an estimate of the share of passenger train kilometres owned by the Government in the final quarter of 2023, up from ~15% in the same period of 2018.

the amount of state subsidies given to the rail industry (adjusted for inflation) across 2020, up from under £15bn across 2005 - a huge increase of over 233%

%

the amount of subsidies allocated to East Anglia trainlines between 2022 and 2023, compared to over 60% given to Scotrail over the same period.

The above statistics have been taken from research and sources provided by the Financial Times.

3.

Tired-looking carriages and train trash need to be addressed alongside improved passenger facilities

 “Train trash must be tackled, with carriage grot spots being eliminated, and an end is urgently needed to finding dirty tables when you get on a train.”

The issue of cleanliness and the disposal of rubbish is a hot topic across political and social spectrums, and rail providers do not escape the conversation. Busy carriages often fall victim to littering making journies unsightly and uncomfortable. 

But this neglect is not only isolated to dirty floors and tables. The BTA suggest that it is symptomatic of a wider problem surrounding facilities and passenger experience, with train companies desperately needing to overhaul their fleets to keep pace with modern standards. Improvements to Wi-Fi connectivity on inter-city trains seem to have eluded other routes across the country, and there is a distinct lack of charging and USB ports.  

The inconsistency of Wi-Fi connectivity on trains has been laid bare by the huge strides airlines have taken to improve connectivity while in the skies.  While airlines compete for passengers with offers of superior Wi-Fi technology, such messaging has yet to become significant in rail company marketing, a fact that the BTA believes needs to change if there is to be an uptick in quality. 

4.

The rail ticketing system needs to be simplified

Reforms are needed to turn the rail ticketing system around to a position where it starts and ends with the passenger experience.

Based on the feedback gathered by the BTA from its members, it is evident that the current array of ticketing options is overly complex. As a response, the BTA  is calling for a simplified and streamlined rail ticketing system in which the definitions of peak and off-peak times are made consistent and flexible enough to adapt to ever-evolving demands.

They have denounced the current systems as being almost deliberately designed to catch passengers out stating that “railway companies are trying to protect themselves and their income against their passengers rather than delivering a smooth, comfortable, and efficient service.” As such, there is a pressing need to transform the experience into something far more user-friendly for the everyday worker who relies on train travel for business trips. In fact, the average corporate traveller pays four times the ticket value of a leisure traveller.

In their recommendation, the BTA has suggested that rail companies need a “clear mandate” in agreement with Network Rail/Great British Railways and the UK Government Treasury to drive revenue through “growth and yield improvements, not through ticket price rises.”

5.

Rail information and tickets need to be more transparent for “rail literate” travellers

“Business travellers are often very regular travellers and can be trusted with a vastly increased level of information about how the rail system is running at any one time.”

Data is a valuable commodity and rail companies tend to keep it close to their chest. It’s an approach which encourages inward-looking perspectives and decision-making to be locked behind boardroom doors, isolating the passengers to whom the discussions matter most. 

However, the BTA believes that travellers, specifically business travellers who are highly literate in train travel, should be trusted with an increased level of information about rail services and systems. After all, business travellers want the systems to work – it’s in their interests – and providing them with details on the location of trains, re-route options, and why decisions are being made about which services run day-to-day will only benefit the collective. 

With the help of a growing AI industry, railway companies would be wise to make their information systems more transparent, including integrating customer experience reports from third parties such as Travel Management Companies (TMCs). If they manage to do that, they can begin to build a seamless railway experience that business travellers and leisure passengers expect.

6.

Passenger champions need to be appointed to provide a much-needed voice for train users

“Passenger champions “should be put at the heart of railway decision making alongside a specific business travel champion”.

Customer feedback and suggestions could be boosted and monitored using quick QR code surveys at all stations, with a strong focus on the timeliness and quality of train information, train cleanliness, seat comfort, conditions for working and Wi-Fi access, and the success of buffet car catering from train to train, as well as the friendliness and welcome offered by train staff.

The aim is to trigger a positive feedback loop, perhaps visible on a digital display, of comments and implemented improvements, hopefully encouraging train operator/rail company competition to put into practice customer ideas that could work quickly.

Lateral thinking is particularly needed on improvements to the component services of rail journeys, such as on-board catering with well-known cooks like Nadiya Hussain and Andi Oliver, to be asked to work with passengers, rail and station operators on what can be achieved with better fresh food offerings in small spaces.

Westminster rail working party

Gray Dawes Commentary

Ian Currington, Director of Account Management

Earlier this month. Ian attended a personal session with the Minister for Rail and HS2 – Huw MerrimanDepartment for Transport (DfT), United Kingdom at Westminster. Thanks to Clive WrattenThe BTA for seeking our expertise to support Business Travel and champion TMC’s.

Broadly, the BTA are campaigning for the voice of the business traveller to be heard by TOCs noting that return to business travel for rail is lagging well behind rail and air. The BTA would like B2B representation at decision making / consultancy level with the TOCS which the B2C channel has. 

For the business traveller we would like the rail industry to focus on the basics:

  1. A reliable rail service with a focus on customer experience over on-train revenue collection.
  2. Improved communication and support for travellers when things go wrong.
  3. Simplified pricing with faster to market pricing initiatives, with products specifically for the business traveller (who usually get forgotten)

Fact of the day – the average corporate traveller pays 4x the ticket value of a leisure traveller!

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