February 22, 2024

Just the ticket

Nick Bamford of Black Box Partnerships tries to get to grips with the long-awaited master plan for rail but finds it lacks detail

After three years in the making, the long-awaited Williams Rail Review – which has now become the Williams Shapps Plan for Rail – was finally published on May 20. Recommendations such as the end of franchising had not only been extensively trailed but had effectively already been implemented in 2020 when Emergency Measures were first brought in as a result of the Covid outbreak.

Weighing in at 100-plus pages and containing 62 commitments across six key themes, nobody could accuse the authors of limiting the scope and ambition of the plan, but its lack of depth and detail leaves the reader with more questions than answers. As a white paper it articulates Government policy and the devil will of course be in the yet-to-be-developed detail, however there are enough clues in the drafting to suggest that change will permeate all areas, levels and stakeholders of the rail industry.

What does it mean for the rail industry?

Reform of the industry structure and governance had been anticipated but the effective abolition of both Network Rail and Rail Delivery Group (RDG) and their replacement by a new, single ‘guiding mind’ in the shape of Great British Railways is a big deal and perhaps more radical than many observers expected.

But if the Government wants to drive outcomes such as a ‘modern passenger experience’ and a ‘retail revolution’, underpinned by initiatives including fares simplification, punctuality/reliability improvements, innovation and a greener railway, then it clearly believes that these could not be delivered through fragmented structures which had been part of a failed, franchise-based, privatised railway.

In the short term, most operators will come out of Emergency Measures and move across to National Rail Contracts while the new Passenger Service Contracts are being developed. The expectation is that these PSCs will start to be awarded within a couple of years.

Cost and revenue risk will remain with the DfT while business builds back up but are expected to transfer back to operators once business returns to sustainable levels. In the meantime, operators will be remunerated on criteria such as punctuality/reliability of service, cleanliness and customer service.

What does it mean for customers?

One of the most visible changes for customers will be the increasing prominence of the Great British Railways brand which will replace National Rail but retain the iconic ‘double arrow’ logo.

In terms of service and customer experience improvements, the plan heralds a ‘New Deal for Passengers’. Part of this is a ‘retail revolution’ which so far consists of generalised references to simplified fares, a better range and availability of walk-up and pay-as-you-go fares, improved integration with other forms of public transport and new train designs to make it easier to work onboard. The plan contains more detail on the introduction of Flexi Seasons (eight days’ travel within 28 days), positioning them as a better value alternative to traditional season tickets for customers who travel their route on two to three days a week. These will be available only as e-tickets or on a smartcard.

“There are enough clues in the drafting to suggest that change will permeate all areas, levels and stakeholders of the rail industry”

None of these are new or particularly revolutionary and barriers to progress have often been due to the industry fragmentation that the plan seeks to remove. As ever, we’re currently short on detail but if the new guiding mind approach of GBR can deliver these and other CX improvements, it will go some way to building customer confidence in the direction and management of the railway.

What does it mean for corporates and their TMC partners?

The simple answer is that we don’t know for sure yet, and most likely neither does anyone else. Apart from acknowledging that business travel accounts for around 10% of all rail sales, the plan contains no detail on the future of ticket distribution and only makes the most fleeting of references to retailers. Here it is in full (part of commitment #32):

“Independent retailers will be able to sell rail tickets, including online and in shops, and will work with Great British Railways to introduce innovations in the future.”

So while it’s reassuring to see the intention that third party retailers will remain part of the landscape, it’s the second part of the sentence which provides insight into their role. Government expects – and future retailing arrangements may require – that retailers will help to drive forward the rail innovation agenda. And given that operators will be rewarded partly on the basis of delivering innovation, it’s not inconceivable that the same principle might be extended to retailers.

Of course, the business travel sector already has a strong record of driving and embracing continuous innovation. Innovation doesn’t just happen at the point of service delivery, so that culture will need to be driven back up the supply chain, from the needs of the business traveller/corporate through the TMC, technology and payment providers and up to product suppliers.  TMCs are also used to working in that environment. The competitive bidding landscape requires them constantly to adapt their offer to customers’ needs, so the focus on innovation will not faze them. In fact, it may well be welcomed.

Nick Bamford, Associate Ground/Rail Services for Black Box Partnerships


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