RAIL REFORM GROUP – creating a railway for the common good
Thought Piece 1 – Stations and Staff
This paper is based on discussions from a workshop in Bolton on 2 December 2022 organised by the Rail Reform Group. Participants were drawn from the rail industry, rail user groups, local transport authorities, station adoption teams and community rail partnerships who came together to look at innovative solutions for providing a ‘people presence’ on stations to help make them safe and welcoming in a financially sustainable way. The paper has been prepared by members of the Rail Reform Group including Dr Nicola Forsdyke and Paul Salveson with helpful contributions from Alex Warner who spoke at the Bolton seminar.
A consultation at the start of the workshop demonstrated a recognition amongst participants that change is needed but also a concern that the short- term solutions imposed by operators are not the best ones for either the railway or its local community in the longer term. Linked to this, many in the group had concerns about accessibility. On a positive note, there was a demonstrable eagerness to share ideas on alternative and innovative ways of providing a human face of the railway at stations in an affordable way. There was also a strong feeling that the most effective way of achieving this is for stakeholders including Train Operating Companies (TOCs), local communities and local authorities to working together.
There is currently considerable Government pressure to reduce spending on rail and, in particular, the day-to- day provision of rail services. The rise of digital services providing ticketing for rail travel has led some to question the value of having staff selling tickets at stations, or even of having staff at all. At the same time, the Government is pursuing a vision of a digital Britain, where every business is a digital one, public services are online and rewards are reaped in terms of efficiencies and through realising the benefits of ‘big data’. In a scenario where the sale of tickets through ticket offices has fallen by 75% at some stations, do nothing is not an option. Whether closing ticket offices and de-staffing stations is the best or only solution, however, is open to debate.
The scale of challenges faced by the rail industry suggest that small local initiatives whilst good, will not bring about the scale of change required. Yet the industry is currently lacking a clear strategy and single guiding mind. At the same time, the current contractual arrangements between the DfT and TOCs provide little incentive to invest in new ways of doing things. There is a vacuum. Whilst volunteers are currently doing good things, there is a sense that rail professionals regard them as amateur – this barrier will need to be overcome if traditional thinking about how service is provided at stations is to be changed.
Hidden from view in all of this is the rail user. Are there benefits to the railway from staffing stations? The short answer is, we don’t know. There appears to be little or no research on the topic but the little we do have suggests that it may be important to potential travellers to know that there are people at stations who can help them. The National Rail Passenger Survey last ran in 2019, before the Covid pandemic hit. This showed considerable satisfaction amongst rail users with the helpfulness of staff on stations, but a lower level of satisfaction with their availability when needed. We also know that complex ticketing (and we might argue journeys) are a barrier to travel, that more, not less, ticket office support may help, and that the service aspect provided by representatives of the railway at stations is important for rail users, especially in times of rail disruption. There are two very separate yet related issues here around access – one relates to those people who find it difficult to navigate complex ticketing systems and want human reassurance to help complete their booking. The other concerns the need of humans for humans. If we want people to use rail, then it is likely that simplifying ticketing and making it easy to buy the right tickets, combined with having friendly human faces of the railway on stations will help generate confidence and more journeys.
These debates become even more important in attracting new users to rail. The pandemic has caused significant shifts in commuter travel. Whilst the national perspective on the railway’s key role sometimes comes across as connecting people to work, in practice its economic value is much wider. Railways connect a multitude of people and things. Introducing service cuts, and removing staff from stations reduces accessibility for the wider community – the very taxpayers who are funding rail.
Whilst it is important that the railway adjusts its core product – that is the timetable and the overall customer experience of travelling – to reflect the market changes that Covid has accelerated, it is also essential to think about how it can grow its other markets. As suggested, these might already be more important than commuting in some areas; conventional marketing wisdom suggests that investing in growth, particularly in the teeth of a recession, pays long term dividends, whilst cuts only weaken businesses further.
Leisure travellers make specific journeys less frequently. They are therefore more likely to require additional support in booking tickets than commuters who make regular repeat journeys. They are also more likely to require assistance on the station with finding their way around how things work. Platform changes, late running trains and coping with luggage are all easier to cope with when there is someone to ask for help. Taking a market-led approach also asks us to think about segmentation. For example, we know that whilst many older people switched to buying online during the pandemic they are still less comfortable with it than younger demographics. Yet they are the largest single demographic, with both time and money to spend on leisure. An increasing number of them also require assistance with travel.
How then might the railway better meet the market opportunities open to it, helping families stay connected, supporting local economies by bringing in tourists and shoppers whilst delivering health benefits through access to the countryside and providing opportunities for exercise? And specifically, how might that human face of the railway and support for travellers be provided in on-traditional ways?
To answer that question, it may help to think about stations in a different way. What role do they or could they really play within their communities? In thinking about them differently, what solutions might emerge?
Thinking about stations differently.
Stations are places where people come together. They do that naturally as they wait for their trains. Yet there are plenty of examples of places where non-rail users also come to use the amenities on a station (for example, pubs, cafes and restaurants – there are some great examples of this at stations such as Knaresborough, York and Irlam in the north of England). These are all visually and spatially connected with their associated stations. They may already and certainly have the potential to act as social hubs – spaces where people meet together regularly with people they know, creating a sense of community and opportunities for collaboration.
Our workshop participants defined the core ingredients of such spaces. Physical amenities were felt to include a shop, coffee, and toilets. In terms of characteristics, social hubs feel, and are, warm, offer help, are accessible and are safe spaces. They are places to go for information and help. We also know from research that stations have the potential to act as centres for meeting and communicating within cities, driving both economic regeneration and improved access to rail services. The design of space can both include and exclude. To be truly social, stations must be accessible in every sense. Giving local communities a sense of ownership of ‘their station’ can lead to both improvements in the station and increased levels of rail use.
To date, and at their best, staff can provide a familiar face of the railway for travellers at local stations, offer advice, find the best fare deals, supply real time information in times of service disruption, clean station facilities, lock them up at the end of the day and help those who need assistance in travelling. Whilst this may be the case in some areas, it is not the norm across the network. However, there are also many examples where alternative models of providing a ‘human face’ together with information on ticketing have been introduced. These include convenience stores on station which also sell tickets and travel advice. The concept of convenience stores and even news-stands selling tickets for urban transport systems is well established in many other countries and can be found on stations on Merseyrail’s network. This seems to work in urban areas where ticketing is straightforward and easily understood by users (for example, zonal ticketing). Alternatives include independent travel agencies on stations such as at Gobowen.
There are also examples of potential hubs, where it is not impossible to imagine support and help for rail travellers might be embraced alongside the current services of hospitality and where the ‘cosy’ elements of social hubs are already provided. Examples include bookshop cafes at stations such as that at Wemyss Bay (which is highly valued by delayed travellers), community cafes as at Lewes and Yatton and community meeting spaces, as in Bolton (where our workshop was held) and Smethwick Rolfe Street. In the North West, Transport for Greater Manchester are trialling a social enterprise approach on stations. We know that where stations are adopted by their local communities, there are cost savings for example, as a result of reductions in vandalism. There is scope to extend community-led solutions but location is important. There is no single solution that will fit everywhere. Rather, provision needs to be linked to a sound understanding of the local and market context.
Bringing about change
First, it appears to be clear that reform to ticketing is desirable before major changes are made to the provision of information and tickets at stations. Reform would simplify the decisions that would-be travellers have to make, making alternative provision of tickets, for example, through convenience stores, more viable. Making changes without such reform risks eroding revenue even further.
Second, industry red tape needs to be cut back. There needs to be a way of changing the arrangements for selling tickets at stations which involve local communities and make it easier for 3rd parties to sell tickets than is the case within the current regulatory framework. There could for example be provision for 3rd parties to be rewarded for guiding customers through transactions on their own devices or for direct ticket selling. The process of agreeing changes to building use and lessee where these lie outside the operational boundaries could also be made simpler.
Third, there is scope to change the way things are done, building on current examples of good practice which have used community-led change to deliver a more market-focussed railway. Change should be collaborative involving staff, managers and local communities. The whole industry – Regulator, policy makers, staff and managers need to be open to this in order to create the best possible railway within the resources available. Where it is propsoed to either ‘re-purpose’ or even close a booking office, there needs to be a clear and accountable process for this, whch could include bodies such as Transport Focus and local community rail partnerships.
Throughout its’ almost 200 years of history the railway in Britain has faced financial challenges, often driven by external factors impacting on its markets and over which it had no control. Each time it has responded, with change driven or facilitated by Government to enable it to continue to provide the social good of national connectivity. History suggests that in recent times, the most successful approaches to change have used a growth-led approach to improving railway finances. There is a growing body of research that suggests that involving local communities in their local railway, alongside taking a user-led approach, has significant economic, financial and social good benefits. It would be a pity if the current emphasis on cutting costs overlooks this, a course of action likely to result in a worsening, not a betterment of the overall railway finances.