In a few weeks’ time, businesses will reach the next significant step of unlocking, with indoor dining and events allowed. But we all know we are still some way from being able to declare we’re back to ‘business as usual’, where workers return to the office and city centres once more buzz as commercial hubs.
For millions of people, the pandemic has shown that homeworking is not only possible but has considerable upsides. In future, commuting, certainly for five days a week, is going to be a more discretionary activity. Industry and business leaders have added their voices to the ongoing debates about what the new world of work will look like, from those that see the city-centre HQ as an essential nerve-centre for their business five days a week, to those that have already declared that their workers will never return full-time to their office desks.
Whatever the eventual pattern of hybrid working, the office commute has changed. The questions we in the rail industry need to ask and answer are: What do commuters now want from rail? What do business and industry need from rail to support their workforces?
The answer to both questions is, in short, once-in-a-generation reform.
Rewriting the rail fare rule book
We need a new deal for passengers that makes train travel as appealing as possible and makes sense for the way we live and work now - not just for commuters, but also for leisure and business travellers too.
The first task is to make it easier for people to choose and pay for the best value fare. Commuters in towns and cities across the country should benefit from a London-style tap-in-tap-out system.
People should be automatically charged the best fare at the end of the week or month. No need for a crystal ball to know whether a daily, weekly or monthly ticket is going to be best value.
This, combined with rewriting the rail fares rule book, would create the opportunity for new deals, priced attractively to make two, three or four trips into the office each week work financially.
For business and leisure passengers, new fares rules could mean a better range of prices for walk-up journeys on long distance trains and greater flexibility to mix-and-match different types of ticket.
By spreading demand this would make today’s busy intercity services more comfortable. It would also make it easier for people to change their train time when a meeting overruns or they want an extra couple of hours at the end of their weekend away.
A new deal for passengers must extend beyond the fares they pay, however.
Independent train companies are closest to the customer
In a changed world it will be more important than ever for private train companies, who know their customers better than anyone, to be agile and able to provide the kind of service people want to buy.
How the railway industry is structured must change to enable this. Commuters have grown used to considerably easier journeys (Route: Bedroom to Study via Kitchen).
Business travellers are used to meeting clients virtually, not physically. Combined with residual concern about social distancing, if people are to choose to get back on a train they are going to want a great service.
Extra space, better reliability and, for longer journeys, a seat. An internet connection stable enough to know they will not be unceremoniously dumped from a crucial Zoom meeting on their way into the office.
A fresh approach from government
We are currently waiting for the government to publish what could be the most wide-ranging reforms to how the railway is run since privatisation in the 1990s.
Instead of the rigid and old franchising system, there needs to be a fresh approach that combines train companies’ innovation and investment with the proven benefits of central coordination. Let local train operators do what they do best, developing and resourcing their services and taking the on-the-ground decisions that will improve journeys. Task a new ‘guiding mind’ with central planning and strategy, from setting timetables to pulling together the operator and network expertise that will set the direction of travel for the next generation of better-connected, greener rail services.
Train companies understand that the reasons people travel have changed fundamentally with the pandemic. They are ready to fight to win back passengers by providing them with a great service, because it matters, to revive the nation’s high streets and to avoid a damaging car-led recovery.
The role of business
So that people can travel with confidence, rail companies are taking extra steps, including boosting cleaning, maximising space for social distancing and ensuring high levels of compliance with the wearing of face-coverings. We are also advising businesses to take steps to help their employees and customers when they travel:
- Help employees and customers avoid peak times: We suggest businesses consider their opening hours and stagger start and finish times to allow people to travel when public transport is quieter, allowing for further social distancing.
- Promote better routes: Consider how people travel to work. Is there a less busy route they can take to avoid known pinch points? Can they avoid changing trains?
- Encourage the recommended travel guidance: That includes for both employees and customers, in particular, the need to wear a face covering – unless exempt.
It is vital for the country’s economic recovery and for the environment that as people begin travelling again, they choose rail. The rail industry is already helping to reconnect people to business, leisure and other opportunities, but a new deal for passengers is needed. The rail industry is ready and with the right government reforms, we can unlock it.