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Rail review? Passengers must be front and centre

Yesterday’s announcement that Northern railway passengers will see the introduction from next January of a 15-minute delay trigger for compensation was a clear win for Transport Focus. We won’t however be going home quietly yet. This welcome effort to rebuild trust also needs to be repeated for passengers using Transpennine Express services.

Rumour-as-news this week that a wholesale review of the rail industry is on its way is also welcome in some ways: The torrid summer that some passengers have just endured, and fares rises in the pipeline, do require a wider review than the current Office of Rail and Road investigation into the timetable meltdown.

However, such a review also carries risks and it is crucial that any such review focuses on what passengers want.

All of our research, when boiled down, points to the crucial importance of delivering the basics. Reliable, frequent, clean trains with staff around when you need them will go a long way to satisfying passengers.

The franchise that delivers fast services on the east coast has gone through many hands, both public and private. What has remained remarkably consistent is passenger satisfaction as measured by our National Rail Passenger Survey which remained unchanged in the spring of this year compared to a year before (at 87% good). Not surprising really: same trains, same staff, pretty similar ticketing and barely a different timetable all tend to suggest the financial machinery in the franchising process is more at fault than the delivery mechanism.

Probably the only research finding we have on this issue is the fact that passengers want someone clearly in charge of their service. That is, an accountable person who can set out plans and answer for day to day performance. Having someone in charge of ‘your’ services is, of course, only part of the solution as decisions about services in other areas can affect yours – so we perhaps also need to see someone placed in charge of the entire system.

On the back of massive investment in trains, scores from Thameslink passengers thought both track and stations were going up…. before the timetable black day of May 20. Having to speak up last week for passengers during a two-hour Transport Select Committee evidence session on the timetable crisis has made us reflect again on what happened. How change is planned and managed within a system with many actors and incentives seems to be far more the key issue going forward than who is running what.

So, a rail review? Ok, but only and so long as it departs, travels and arrives with the needs of passengers firmly front and centre.

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