There is no perfect way of structuring a Railway …

There is no perfect way of structuring a railway … but franchising is one of the better ways.

This was the underlying theme for today’s Department for Transport ‘Rail Opportunities Day’ in London, where a couple of hundred people gathered to hear some influential voices from the industry talk about the forthcoming changes to the Franchising process.

Recent history at the DfT – and you all know the story, so let’s not drag it up again – signaled an absolute imperative to do something differently …Enter stage left, Peter Wilkinson … with not only a long career in the rail industry, but more importantly in my opinion, the energy and vision to take hold of a very sticky problem and fix it! My friends in the industry tell me that Peter’s arrival at the DfT has had a ‘seismic’ impact … so we gathered today to see some evidence of his magic touch. What’s new?

First up on the platform is Clare Moriarty, DG for Rail at the DfT since January this year, coming from Corporate Group, DfT before that, and Health before that. I haven’t heard Clare speak before – but would love to hear her again! She spoke with passion, energy and a clear focus on what needs to change in the ‘Department’ – and certainly from my perspective, really looks like she’s capable of leading that change. She spoke of the need to ‘refresh & reinvigorate’ the franchising process, of the importance of new ideas and new ways of working coming through more engagement, partnership and collaboration .

A key word was ‘open’. Along with a process which is properly structured, mutually beneficial for all the stakeholders, and clear and transparent… The Rail industry must be open. Open to new entrants to the market, as well as open to new ideas and innovation.

Then a complete shift in style for our next speaker – Richard Brown, currently Chair of Eurostar and also Chair for the DfT Franchise Advisory Panel. Richard has been in the rail sector since Adam was in the Ticket Office, and draws on a wealth of experience for his presentation on the merits of the franchising process. It was from Richard that I borrowed my title for this piece … And in my view, he made a compelling case in favour of franchising, whilst acknowledging that there is ‘no perfect way to structure a railway’.

Richard talked us through the success story of the Railway since privatisation – passenger journeys having doubled in that time – and shared some really positive stuff in relation to the UK’s league table performance in journey times (2nd best in Europe), frequency (3rd best), and punctuality & reliability (6th best). Well may be that last stat isn’t one to write home about but to coin a phrase, we’re getting there.

What occurs to me is that we are good at the activities which are driven by a system or a process. Where it starts to get interesting is on Capacity, where the UK is currently 4th worst in Europe. How do the Operating Companies accommodate the growth, whilst maintaining and where possible improving, the service levels that the passenger receives (and increasingly expects)?

Being a new girl to the industry, and still having the benefit of my ‘outside perspective’, I would say that Rail needs to see the clues in the figures … processes which rely on ‘people’ and their behaviours need some focused attention. This is about culture, and how people feel about the job they do, and the company they work for. I have never come across an industry which has the passion and loyalty that you can find in Rail, but it can’t be denied that it also has it’s fair share of disgruntled customer service staff, who are working under extreme pressure and in sometimes aggressive environments on the ‘frontline’.

As Richard quite rightly said, consumer organisations – the high street shops, the supermarkets, the restaurants and the theatres – know how to do this stuff … and if it is to cope with the further increase in passenger numbers forecast , then this industry needs to know the answers to these critical questions:-

  • Who are your customers?
  • How do you engage with all your stakeholders?
  • How effective are you at listening to those stakeholders, and building key relationships?

Consumer-orientated organisations have learnt to do this naturally …

Richard Brown concludes by reiterating that the Franchising process has historically delivered for passengers, and for the Government . However, for the incumbents it will continue to present these key challenges:-

  • It’s high profile – this is acceptable for some, and not so for others. This is where you put your Brand reputation on the line …
  • You have to demonstrate how you will accommodate the growth that is forecast – whilst maintaining standards in safety and improving the passenger experience, continuously. Which leads us to …
  • Increasingly discerning customers. Our society expectations of service, and value for money continue to rise and all consumer organisations – including Rail – are expected to meet and where possible exceed these expectations in order to survive.

And now, we break for lunch!

Watch out for my next post, which will contain my ramblings on the presentations from the afternoon session, including Alex Hynes from Go-Ahead Group plc, Paul Plummer, Group Strategy Director at Network Rail, Nicola Shaw, CEO at HS1 and Peter Wilkinson, the man with all the answers …