The railway of the future
This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
A railway that serves passengers and economic growth.
Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.
The UK rail industry is undergoing a transformation virtually unparalleled in its history.
Imagine this industry day was being held in one of the immediate post-war decades. It doesn’t really matter which one.
We’d all be working for the same employer: the state. And our job descriptions would share a common objective: to manage the decline of the railways in as orderly, and efficient manner as possible. The objective would perhaps be unwritten, but it would be real.
Despite our passion for the railway, a technology this country invented – and exported around the world – we’d all see Britain transferring its affection to a new form of travel, as car ownership became affordable for millions.
So what would our post-war counterparts think to see the rail industry in 2015? How would they comprehend the ORR statistics published last Thursday, showing that the number of rail passenger journeys across England, Scotland and Wales in 2013/14 increased by 63.6 million to a record 1.3 billion – a 5% rise over the year before?
And, in the space of just 20 years, a doubling in passenger traffic. Revenue quadrupling to £8.2 billion in 2013/14. And rail freight increasing by 3 quarters.
Imagine taking our post-war counterparts on a station tour today. To St Pancras, Kings Cross, Reading, Manchester Victoria, Birmingham New Street, Blackfriars.
I think their first reaction would be astonishment. But then I think they’d be very proud; supported by the most pro-rail government since before the Second World War the railway has not just survived, but is now thriving in a new century.
So this is a fantastic time to be in leadership in the railway industry. But it’s also a great responsibility to be building a railway for the future.
And during this transformational period we must never lose sight of the customer.
Meeting the needs of customers
I’d like to start by talking about expectations of one group of customers in particular: disabled passengers.
There are over 11 million people with a limiting long term illness, impairment or disability in this country. As paying customers, disabled passengers have as much right to access services as anyone. And in the last 10 years, there has been progress.
It was a privilege to be able to announce an extra £160 million for the Access for All programme, meaning that by the end of this year, 150 stations across the network will have been upgraded. And thanks to the rail industry’s Disabled Persons Protection Policies, if a passenger asks for assistance using a station, they should be able to get it.
But even though it has got better for disabled passengers, things are still not good enough. Far too few stations have step free access to every platform. And we should ask ourselves – how many of the improvements we’ve seen across the network would have happened if they had not been prompted by the law, or by government spending?
Everyone understands that our historic rail network was not designed to suit the needs of all passengers. But that can’t stand as an excuse; it just means we have to be more innovative. Just like I saw a couple of weeks ago when I was in St. Austell, where a new footbridge with accessible lifts has been fitted into the grade II listed station.
And it means that where work is taking place, it must be disability-friendly by default. Because quite apart from the fact that this is simply the right thing to do, trains and stations designed with disabled people in mind work better for everyone.
Not just the 11 million disabled people in this country, but also the family travelling with a baby in a pram. Or the skier returning from the slopes with a sprained ankle. Or anyone who’s carrying heavy luggage, or who appreciates clear signage to help get about the station.
At the moment, the reasonable expectations of passengers with limited mobility are not being met. For the future, that must change.
And in the railway of the future, all passengers will have increasingly high expectations of rolling stock.
Already, passengers judge the railway through the trains they travel on. And it’s right for passengers to have high expectations.
In virtually every coffee shop in Britain, for the price of a coffee you can get Wi-Fi, too. Why shouldn’t passengers expect the same service on their trains? And I’m sure we all agree that the practice of emptying toilets onto the track is unacceptable.
So it’s good news that through investment such as Thameslink, the InterCity Express Programme, Crossrail and the franchising programme, we’ll see 3,700 brand new carriages in service by 2019.
The first IEP trains will be in service in 2 years’ time, and they’ll soon be joined by the new Thameslink and Crossrail trains.
But the challenge for the railway industry is this: these new trains will raise passengers’ expectations even higher. And that’s a challenge that will need to be met through the franchising programme, so I’m looking forward to seeing the industry’s rolling stock strategy when it’s out at the end of the month.
Treating passengers fairly
The railway of the future must meet passengers’ expectations of fair treatment.
Train operators have every right to confront and penalise the minority of passengers who deliberately evade fares, but operators must recognise that most passengers are honest.
Today we are launching a consultation on measures that could make things fairer.
If the proposals are agreed to, train operators will have to remove misleading references to criminal sanctions in letters chasing payment of penalty fares. All appeals bodies will be independent of transport operators, and they’ll be required to suspend the 21-day deadline for payment while an appeal is heard.
Railway ticketing is complex, and passengers who make honest mistakes shouldn’t be treated like criminals. So the railway of the future must better meet customers’ expectations of access, of rolling stock, and of fair treatment.
And it’s by putting the passenger at the heart of everything you do that the railway will flourish in future, and will in turn secure economic growth for the country.
Quite simply, the prospects for the industry are more exciting than they have been for generations. In the 5 years to 2019, we’re spending over £38 billion to run and improve the rail network.
We’re investing in Crossrail, Thameslink, HS2 and HS3. It’s a huge responsibility for the railway industry to deliver new infrastructure on budget, on time and to keep things moving. But it’s a fantastic opportunity, too.
Because if we get it right, the railway of the future can help us sell our technology and skills across the world.
Last week I led a railway trade mission to Taiwan. Over the next 15 years, Taiwan will spend over £11 billion building new metro lines and upgrading its railways. And over the next 3 years alone, we estimate the potential value of this work for the UK rail industry to be around £100 million.
In the immediate post-war decades, some people wrote the railways off.
They did so because they couldn’t imagine a future in which the railways continued to thrive. We don’t have that problem. We can expect a bright future. The challenge now is to get there. Through all the upheaval of change, we must to continue to put passengers first.