Following the launch of the Williams-Shapps plan, Hugo Jamson, creative director at NewTerritory, argues that rail needs rethinking end-to-end if it is to continue as a viable and valued part of our transport infrastructure.
Rail transport in the UK is at a critical crossroads.
COVID-19 hit rail travel hard, reducing use by 95% at the height of the first lockdown, which was exacerbated by the ongoing media narrative and consumer perception of railways being overcrowded, expensive and unreliable.
The joy and romance of taking the train has long since been replaced by frustration and disillusionment - and a disconnect between rail experiences and those in other parts of life.
As people switch back to cars, urgent action is needed to make rail more affordable, attractive and relevant to our evolving lifestyles.
With widespread hybrid-working policies now radically changing people’s travel needs, rail needs completely rethinking end-to-end if it is to continue as a viable and valued part of our transport infrastructure.
The Queen’s Speech on 11 May put connectivity, rail and the environment at the heart of the Government’s focus. The government has also pubished its plan to bring our fragmented rail infrastructure together under a new ‘Great British Railways’ state body.
Something of a third way between nationalisation and privatisation, the new body will set fares and timetables, manage ticketing and award contracts to private companies to operate trains.
It is the biggest opportunity for reform in decades.
While the broad-brush plan has been outlined, the detail is yet to be defined. What is clearly needed though is a bold and considered conceptualisation of how our rail sector can be rebuilt so that it can flex, accommodate and adapt to subsequent changes in people’s lifestyles and expectations.
It needs to be robust, but also ‘anti-fragile’ - able to grow and learn from mistakes - so that it can see these shifts as an opportunity for improvement and innovation, rather than a deviation from a pre-determined static path.
There are some key traits, which inherently make up a good transport system. Flexibility, inclusivity, connectivity and collectivity. It is useful to think of these as a framework for what ‘Great British Railways’ needs to build.
With the shift towards hybrid working, changes to our shopping habits and restrictions on international travel, there is an immediate need to rethink the way we design our trains and carriages, so that they can serve varied customer types and multiple, fluid use cases.
Rail providers cannot rely on set schedules to predict the types of customers using their services at any given time and the traditional static layouts of trains are not adequate for today's itinerant workforce.
Rather than being restricted in its configurations, rail should look to innovations in other sectors of transport, such as aviation and automotive, which are increasingly using modular and flexible seating and functional systems. Being able to reconfigure train carriages will not only increase efficiency in the use of space in the carriage, but will lead to a revolution in way we use trains beyond getting from A to B.
The pandemic has led to an influx of city dwellers relocating to the country, bringing with them a familiarity of slick, on-demand digital services and interfaces in their daily life. They have an expectation of how things should work seamlessly, which is not currently being met by the experience presented to rail travellers.
Rather than being seen as a challenge, digitisation is a great opportunity for the rail industry to re-organise and optimise the service it provides, improving the experience not only for a tech-savvy hybrid workforce but for the local communities which will continue to rely on trains.
While updating the interfaces through which services are booked will benefit everyone (including the rail providers themselves), for real change to occur rail services need to be part of a wider range of travel options presented to the traveller.
Transport providers in general need to stop thinking in isolation and work together, supported by unified payment and route planning solutions. Linking the journey from first to last mile will reduce reluctance on the part of travellers who may otherwise be happy to travel by train, but who struggle with the wider journey planning.
Whether tempting the professional class out of their cars and onto trains, supporting the needs of isolated people or families in remote locations, or benefiting society through the reduction of emissions, we have the opportunity to make our railways the backbone of British national infrastructure once again.
None of this can happen without government support and leadership from the top. We need national solutions to complicated problems and an integrated, thoughtful approach which fundamentally understands how encouraging people to travel by train is an essential part of a bigger picture for the role of transport in the UK. Thinking this way will not only make our railways more resilient than they were before the pandemic, but will also bring back some of the joy and delight of travelling by train for future generations.