RAIL SECTOR COMMENTARY: What did the Victorians ever do for us?

The capacity challenge and the echoes of history: Freshwater’s John Morris outlines how thinking like the Victorians may offer some useful perspective on the industry’s biggest test

More railway performance information is available through more channels than ever before. Stats on punctuality and fares and news of disputes and delays spread online like wildfire, making firefighters of the industry’s communicators.

So how can the story be moved on? How can it shift a public perception of the industry that is fed by a constant diet of negative news and a tendency not to let the truth get in the way of a good headline? This is where a bigger dose of history would help by providing some context for the problems that those in the rail industry face today.

The industry’s constraints
 First and foremost, it is important to understand the constraints of a  railway network that was never designed as an integrated system, has  conflicts in capacity needs and was, for most of its existence, managed  as a declining asset.

 Strong words? Maybe, but the root of the railway’s problems goes back  around a hundred years. By 1945, two world wars had pushed railway  infrastructure to breaking point. Nationalisation in 1948, and a  ‘modernisation plan’ by 1955, led to orders of often untested equipment    – it was modernisation ‘on the hoof’. Competing manufacturers  delivered unreliable and often chaotic machinery to a bewildered workforce and an unsuspecting public. Today’s irritations pale into insignificance by comparison.

Then came the Beeching Report in the 1960’s that sought to reduce costs; firstly by closing loss-making branches and secondly - which is still of relevance today - by axing alternative diversionary routes. London and the south-east were relatively unscathed when it came to the proposed cuts. However, in common with the rest of the railway, there were significant ‘rationalisations’ that included the removal of additional crossovers, loops and other potential ‘work rounds’ that could be used in times of congestion and failure. Such features were deemed to be unnecessary luxuries.

The Serpell Report
The next thirty years saw successes, such as the London-Liverpool/Manchester/Preston electrification, but there was pressure to further cut costs. For instance, an electrified railway between Sheffield and Manchester (The Woodhead route), which opened in 1955, was closed in 1981 because there were two routes between the cities – another needless luxury in the eyes of the Treasury.

The Serpell Report was commissioned in 1982 by the government because rail passenger numbers had been in steady decline since 1957, revenues had decreased steadily from £2.3 billion (1970) to £1.8 billion (1982) and costs had risen from £2.5 billion to £2.7 billion over the same period. Cited as a ‘second Beeching’, at its most extreme, the railway would have been slashed by 84 per cent.

Serpell was not adopted, but relentless pressure on costs and demands for a railway that lived within its means further reduced flexibility and, for example, saw every three old coaches replaced by two new ones. It also resulted in the unloved Pacer trains, another Treasury edict that still prove controversial, although these are due to be completely replaced in the next north of England rail franchises.

This rail-based austerity never envisaged what happened next: increasing passenger numbers from 1988 to the present day. There were no contingency sidings or loops for extra trains and, unlike many European railways, there were no extra trains on standby just in case they were needed. There were no easy work rounds if a train failed in front of another and there were no plans for a larger railway as the economy grew – and as the growing population fell out of love with the car. Worse still, putting back rail capacity, even where there was a clear need, was not an incremental cost.

Much of the network was at maximum capability. Enhancements that were logical to the layman (‘just put extra coaches on and make platforms longer’) were not economically-viable: who would buy a £10 million train just to use in the rush hour?

Technology is opening up important opportunities for a better dialogue between customer and industry
The state was unwilling to invest further, so the UK government opted for privatisation and competition, seeing it as a way to revitalise the railway. That is now proving controversial but, to leave the politics to one side, it would be a mistake to judge the present situation against an imagined history of a better time.
The reality is that, today, there are twice as many passenger journeys with only two thirds of the railway infrastructure – twice the number of journeys on a railway that was pared down to a ‘steady state’. This level of passenger growth is a huge success story which deserves to be widely heard and understood but the ‘capacity crunch’ that comes with it is a communications challenge for us all.

Some incremental developments are allowing the last drops of capacity to be wrung out of the system. Network Rail’s digital railway agenda will go some way in driving future innovation in train movements, timetable planning, integration across modes and personalising the passenger experience through smart and mobile technology. The government has a level of ambition that may prove challenging for Network Rail to deliver.

The scale of investment in CP5, and that which is planned for CP6, will continue to attract intense interest, as will delays caused by engineering complications. There is of course a need for entirely new infrastructure, and while there will be concerns over new railways encroaching on areas of natural beauty, it is important to demonstrate the need to create extra capacity as the UK’s economy and population grows and yet more people move from the car to the train.

Social and economic benefits
Some of today’s railway would be unrecognisable to the Victorian-age pioneers, yet fundamentals never change. They too would have recognised that there comes a point where entirely new infrastructure is needed and they too had the challenges of unreceptive land owners and those who objected to changes in their way of life. They also saw the wider social and economic benefits: the railway as a public good, not simply a means of transport.

Modern communicators would be wise to consider our past in order to explain our future. The echoes from history are very clear and the lessons must be studied and placed in a modern context. In order to better communicate what the industry is doing well – and manage criticism, valid or otherwise – the industry should do as the Victorians: use technology to best effect. This includes making the most of social media, rolling news channels and online discussion forums to slowly – headline by headline – set the record straight.

With a clear, transparent and consistent narrative we must lead an open and honest conversation across all channels to address the industry’s challenges, failures and successes alike. Above all, and in an inherently technical and complicated industry, how we speak to our customers will define our ability to communicate effectively. The challenges might be rooted in history but the public’s perception needn’t be.

FRESHWATER, CARDIFF,  10/06/2015Authored by John Morris of Freshwater

 an independent communications consultancy with dedicated rail consultants providing integrated communications support to a range of organisations in the sector.

This article was originally published in Rail Professional magazine, November 2015.  


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