From the 9 to 12 February 2021, the industry came together for the Rail Innovation Exhibition 2021, organised by the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), InnovateUK, the Department for Transport and the Railway Industry Association (RIA).
Over a period of four days, RIA’s Unlocking Innovation webinars examined how the rail industry can support the economic bounce back post-Coronavirus. The first session, in particular, focused on the future needs of passengers and how rail can adapt to meet these needs.
Across the sector there is a lot of thinking going into how to build a transport system fit for future generations, with a huge amount riding on the industry’s ability to deliver. The panel discussion saw Anthony Smith of Transport Focus, Charlene Wallace and Loraine Martins OBE of Network Railand Simon Blainey from the University of Southampton give their views on what they expect for the future of rail.
Transport Focus – the view from passengers
First to the virtual stage was Transport Focus chief executive Anthony Smith. As an independent statutory body for UK’s public transport, Transport Focus aims to improve the transport experience and provide utility to those who are trying to make things better for passengers. He emphasised the uncertain environment that transport planners are undoubtedly facing and the work they are doing to address this through online passenger surveys.
In the short term, he stressed that there is a great deal of pent-up demand to travel, and particularly during summer with many people remaining in the UK. However, he said the rail industry needed to have the “right product at the right price” or it could see passengers use move to other modes of transport. Anthony added that, as a sector, we will need to ensure that barriers are lowered for those who want to travel, with movement in areas like fares ticketing reform.
Looking to the future, Anthony did not shy away from the fact there are likely to be challenges. We may see less commuting and long-distance travel, he highlighted, but said that the leisure market could be much stronger. He suggested that the industry may need to do re-examine how and when it does engineering on the railways, to adapt to this, and that an end of the usual 9 to 5 work day could see peak hours being smoothed out across the day. Despite this, he said, staffing will still be important, with technology and innovation still playing a key role.
He ended by giving a rallying call to the industry on a different issue: “The health crisis will go away, but the climate crisis won’t,” he urged, concluding that, if train travel can be reliable, at the right place, at the right price, it will help people choose more sustainable travel options.
Compere David Clarke agreed that the increase in car travel showed there was pent up travel demand, which rail could utilise.
Changes at Network Rail
Charlene Wallace, national passenger and customer experience director at Network Rail, spoke next. She began by highlighting the ‘Putting Passengers First’ strategy, introduced by Andrew Haines in 2018. She said that Andrew had come in with a mission to be open about what Network Rail did well and what it didn’t, with the aim to transform Network Rail from an infrastructure company to an organisation that takes a more holistic view of customer’s needs.
According to Charlene, post-pandemic Network Rail is focused on the need to rebuild passenger confidence, be a great partner, make the strong case for rail and deliver culture change. Part of this will be through Network Rail’s Project SPEED, which stands for Swift, Pragmatic, Efficient Enhancement Delivery, to halve the time and slash the costs of project delivery. She also highlighted RIA’s work on the ‘ten reasons to invest in rail’ report, which makes a very strong case for the rail sector’s future following Coronavirus.
Network Rail’s director of diversity and inclusion, Loraine Martins OBE, gave an overview of how the infrastructure manager was seeking to become a more welcoming organisation and improve its accessibility offer, both for employees and customers. She said that customers had rightfully challenged Network Rail to provide disabled passengers with the best possible experience, and to communicate with them about how decisions are made and what impact they could have,
Loraine also highlighted several initiatives, including the Principles on Good Design and Built Environment Accessibility Panel, both of which are ensuring work to stations considers different accessibility requirements at the design and planning stage.
She talked about the Accessible Travel Policy that comes into force in April this year, which means Network Rail and operators can be held to account on their service to disabled passengers. Network Rail is embedding this thinking throughout the organisation and teams are being asked to create a Diversity Impact Assessment to make them think about the impact of decisions made and whether provisions can be put in place to minimise disruption to disabled customers
Changing to passengers needs
Dr Simon Blainey, Associate Professor in Transportation at the University of Southampton, was the final speaker, He spoke about how Coronavirus would require the rail industry to change the way it works, highlighting that types of travel may change and therefore what passengers look for in train travel may be different.
His view was that people still travel by train because its affordable, good value, quick, convenient, a pleasant experience, low stress and safe. However, in the future, far fewer will be using trains because they have to, so the industry may need to redouble its focus on improving the customer experience.
In the short to medium term, this will mean showing how the sector is keeping passengers safe – reconfiguring seat spacings, greater compartmentalisation of passengers, increased focus on cleaning and carriage interiors, reconfiguring air conditioning and careful management of passenger flows both within vehicles and while boarding and alighting.
In the longer term, the question will be how to increase passenger comfort to ensure people want to travel – with greater seat comfort and better journey times, particularly focusing on door-to-door time and on access, connectivity and egress.
He highlighted that many people do not take the train because of the ‘last five miles’ problem, where local connections to train stations add a disproportionate amount of time onto the journey. He also highlighted the need to deliver stress-free journeys, with the right information at the right time, access for all levels of accessibility, a renewed focus on punctuality and reliable on-board services, such as Wi-Fi.
Affordability and carbon were also high on the list, with customers being increasingly aware of the carbon impact of their transport choices.
Challenges and opportunities
All the speakers highlighted the challenges that rail faces, as the sector seeks to attract passengers back post-Coronavirus. But all were equally confident about the opportunities this will present, to provide a better, more reliable and effective experience for passengers and freight users.
In the longer term, rail should see continued growth and support and help the UK ‘build back better’, as highlighted by RIA’s ‘10 Reasons to Continue to Invest in Rail’ document, mentioned throughout the session.
Exhibitors and Sponsors: