For the last few months, the rail industry has been in chaos, going completely off the rails with strike after strike, and as we enter the new year - here we are again - stuck in groundhog day.
Passengers quite literally don’t know if they are coming or going, and as a result, according to new research my company Seatfrog conducted from more than 2,000 rail passengers across the country, half of people say they have had no choice but to ditch the train and travel by car instead. Other recent surveys back this up, last month RAC estimated that nearly half of young adults aged 18-24 had changed their plans over the festive period to travel by car due to strikes.
When people who want to use trains are travelling in a car because it’s a more reliable alternative, then someone needs to sort the problem, and fast.
In the past 12 months alone, almost one in 10 (8 per cent) passengers say they’ve experienced more than ten delays to their journeys. And these costs are hitting them where it most hurts - their pockets - with regular train users revealing delay and cancellation expenses have set them back almost £250 throughout the year.
So how can we begin to tackle the problems caused by years of stagnation in the rail sector? The answer lies in solving the right problems and increasing the pace of change.
So little has changed in rail over the past few decades. Whilst other categories have forged ahead and embraced change, we still have the same working practices and job roles that existed 20 years ago - even though customer behaviour and expectations have changed dramatically.
It’s not rocket science, the output of a country is the sum of the value created by its workforce. If you can embrace technology to do things without as much manual effort, then you get a higher output and are a richer country that can give its citizens a better quality of life.
So “jobs being lost” is the wrong way to look at this, it’s an old narrative that only serves those resistant to change. It should be about the massive opportunity of progress that comes with automation, and where people are reskilled into more fulfilling and productive jobs in categories that are crying out for more workers, which rail is not.
We need to understand the actual problems. Take paper tickets for example; they are in massive decline, yet there is huge resistance to removing ticket kiosks in stations. The problem isn’t that people can’t buy a ticket in the station, it is that digital ticketing doesn’t serve a small portion of important people - so let’s solve that. It’s faster and more efficient - thus requiring less physical labour and freeing up much-needed budget for fair wages.
The same logic applies to faster trains and schemes like HS2. The problem isn’t that trains don’t currently travel fast enough - it’s that people end up wasting 40 mins+ by turning up early to the station so they can figure out their platform. Faster trains aren’t a solution to this unnecessary preamble to most people’s journey - a better end-to-end customer experience is, and that problem doesn’t come with a £billion infrastructure bill.
To move things forwards, we need to ask - how do we make this category the best it can be?
Unions, the DfT and Rail bosses need to quickly take a brutally honest look at its structure and rigorously interrogate which jobs are essential to making rail the best it can be, and which jobs could be replaced with better innovation that makes life easier for passengers AND the rail industry. While it’s a tough call to make, the future of the category is at stake and business leaders need to make tough decisions for the greater good. Importantly, it’s not about jobs lost; it’s about jobs created, where people are supported to be reskilled and deployed to sectors leading innovation that desperately need a refreshed workforce.
As an investor, I look at the core of rail and immediately think it needs to lean up the team, start innovating much faster and invest in technology to create the best customer experience. Then, it will be able to offer staff increased wages, give passengers better prices and vastly improve the train travel experience as a whole to lead the charge and reduce carbon emissions in a meaningful way.
Change is a good thing, people resist it, but it’s essential for growth and progress. We need to put differences aside, and start putting passengers at the heart of the future of rail before any more seats travel empty.