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Train Operating Companies set out their plan for the future railway

FSB takes pride in being a member-led organisation. We are always looking for experts to get the view of small businesses heard. Recently, FSB member and film-maker Bob Griffins represented us at a Rail Delivery Group event.

Railways in Britain are a huge issue. Our roads are overcrowded and often in towns, gridlocked. Rail passenger use is skyrocketing, capacity, particularly at peak times is almost at breaking point. We all want a better railway, but with the exception of new rolling stock, it is hard to see what the 1990s privatisation actually achieved for the passenger. 

On Monday 1 July National Rail’s Rail Delivery Group delivered a presentation about the future of the railways at the Met Hotel in Leeds.

For the purposes of clarity, the Rail Delivery Group – or RDG – comprises all the passenger train operating companies – or TOCs  - in the UK. National Rail is their trading name. The event was described as an evidence-gathering exercise designed to help inform and shape the ‘Williams Report’ that will look at the structure of the whole rail industry and the way in which passenger rail services are delivered. 

According to the website:  “The review will make recommendations for reform that prioritise passengers’ and taxpayers’ interests. The review’s findings and recommendations will be published in a government white paper in autumn 2019. Reform will begin in 2020.

“It is led by independent chair, Keith Williams. Keith is deputy chairman of the John Lewis Partnership and former chief executive of British Airways. Keith is supported by a panel of experts from across the country with expertise in rail, freight, business and passenger interests”.

The RDG are running nine events like this one around the country.

In truth this was a disappointing affair run by the TOCs themselves that set out the way in which it intended to deliver rail services less badly to its customers in the future. 
This was apparent from the 84 page brochure that they had prepared in advance of the event entitled, ‘Changing Track. Proposals for a more customer-focused, joined-up and accountable railway’. This document sets out the TOCs response to what it sees as some of the necessary changes the rail industry will require over the next 25 years or so.
In its introduction, the Chief Executive of the RDG, Paul Plummer, says ‘Now is a time for fundamental change, not tinkering round the edges or, worse, inaction. We need to configure the railway around its customers and set it up for a successful future’. 

Now there’s a novel concept: a railway configured around its customers. Who’d have thought…?

The core of this document is the RDG’s proposals and ideas for restructuring the industry based on eight principles:
• Delivering easier fares for all.
• Putting a new independent organising body in charge of the whole industry.
• Introducing responsive customer-focused ‘public service contracts’ to replace the current franchising system.
• Giving customers more choice of operators on some long-distance routes.
• Making sure track and train are all working to the same customer-focused goals.
• Bringing decisions about local services closer to home.
• Enhancing freight’s central role in delivering for Britain’s economy.
• Investing in our people to deliver positive long-term change for our customers.

The only possibly surprising thing in this list is what appears to be the ‘Turkeys voting for Christmas’ idea of replacing the current franchising system with ‘public service contracts’. But don’t look too closely as this is just a rearrangement of the deckchairs: none of the TOCs intends to lose out in either the short or long term and it is as yet unclear how such a change might benefit passengers or freight anyway. 

Apart from the above, nothing stands out as new or extraordinary or especially different in the list as a way forward; there is nothing there that with a few word changes most big concerns would not list as amongst their own aims; and this is surely the credo they should be working to already anyway.

But this was a ‘summary’ merely from one point of view which, as an exercise in itself typifies the fragmentation of the rail industry more generally. 

Nothing of the challenges, threats and opportunities offered by new technology were even mentioned. 

Yet one of these will reflect very well on the TOCs, appearing to make them more efficient and boosting capacity where we all thought there was none: the Digital Railway.

Since the mid-1990s the number of passengers using Britain’s railways has doubled – at peak times, essentially Britain’s railway is full. Yet there is a predicted need for more than a billion extra rail journeys by the mid-2030s. So how is it possible to increase capacity? Partly, this could be done by running longer trains and increasing the length of platforms – a process which is already underway. But one is still prevented from running more trains by the safety feature of ‘blocks’ of track, which only permit one train at a time to run in that section of line and which was introduced in the 1880s in response to a series of grisly collisions.

Currently being rolled out by Network Rail – the body responsible for railway infrastructure – the Digital Railway dismantles the idea of ‘blocks’ of track by doing away with all trackside signals, replacing them instead with strategically placed boxes along or even within the track which constantly talk to the on-board computers in the new breed of trains, meaning that the network will know at any one time precisely where any and all of its trains are and more trains can run on those lines more safely.

Another way of running more trains is to re-open railways previously closed under the infamous Dr Beeching in the 1960s, some of which were closed for the most specious of reasons (including the political one which motivated the exercise in the first place).

Although re-opening was mentioned at least twice during the open section of the meeting from the floor, the panel refused to engage with the idea because it is not their problem: they operate trains – if there is track we must assume they will run trains on it, but they are not the ones to campaign for more.

Other issues not touched on include the opportunities offered by alternative forms of motive power and the threat posed by autonomous vehicles. 

This writer attended another event in Leeds in the previous week which was all about Hydrogen Fuel Cells. Outside Leeds Library were five cars all powered by Hydrogen while, inside, we were told about the simple process of extracting hydrogen from water by electrolysis which can be powered by wind turbines in a virtuous green circle – the vehicles themselves giving out no dangerous fumes or gases while only water drips from their exhausts. 

Alstrom are already running a hydrogen-powered train in Germany. 

Why does this matter? Because often one of the arguments about re-opening lines or improving extant ones is the cost of electrification. With hydrogen-powered trains, you won’t need to do that. Yes, you will need to fill up your trains every now and again with fresh hydrogen, so a system for doing that will need to be put in place – but the technology is already here, and trains stop at stations…

And then there is the threat – theoretical at least for the time being – posed by the rise of the autonomous vehicle. A line of ten heavily-laden trucks driving itself along a motorway is effectively a train. But, unlike a train, each one of those trucks can peel off from the rest at the appropriate junction and deliver its goods right to its client’s door. We might not like the idea of self-driving vehicles and we may resist it for a long time but there is an awful lot of research money going in to perfect the technology from a lot of big players – from car manufacturers around the world to Uber – and it might be something else we all have to come to terms with in the end.

In the face of the Rail Delivery Group’s 84 page argument for itself it is difficult to see how the questions and many varied points that were raised by the audience at this event will make it into the Williams report. But it is clear from some of the many points raised – and from those that weren’t – that the subject is a complex and enduring one. The report will not be definitive as it will only address the issues from the position where we are now, and that will always change – including, one might hope, by the gradual process of re-opening lines and creating a fuller, more effective and – yes, they said it – joined-up system that truly serves the needs of the nation.

About the writer
Bob Griffin is a film-maker and photographer who has a lifelong interest in railways. In the summer of his fifth year, he and his elder brother would go down to the local railway station (Harrow and Wealdstone), to play on the exhibition train that was parked in a siding there, little understanding that the exhibition in question was setting out Dr Beeching’s ‘Rail Modernisation Plan’ that was to cut the railway down to 11,000 miles of route from 23,000. 

His company, Griffin Partnership, is to produce a broadcast tv series about the history of Britain’s railways in association with the National Railway Museum in York.