It’s time for a bold vision for rail

Thoughts from Rail Delivery Group CEO Jacqueline Starr on Customer Focused Stations

Whether it’s festivals, family days out or a long-deserved holiday in one of Britain’s many beauty spots, millions of us are now planning our summer getaways. 

And for those of us who are planning to make those getaways by rail, the sense of relaxation and excitement that comes with a holiday should begin when you book your tickets. 

As CEO of the Rail Delivery Group, I have always sought to put customers at the heart of everything we do. 

Which is why I know that greater retail reform is needed so that our customers get the service they deserve, whether they are travelling for work or leisure. 

The number of passengers on our network are recovering but revenue remains 30% below pre-pandemic levels. To secure the long-term future of this vital public service we need to attract more people on to the railways.    

We need to deliver a better, simpler, and more affordable railway for customers and taxpayers and to do that we must be able to respond to what our customers want. 

For too long the rail industry has looked inwards, maintaining its own processes and ways of working, without consideration for customers’ changing behaviours and expectations.  
 
The rules on selling tickets were last reviewed in 1995 – a time when Blur and Oasis were battling it out in the charts and DVDs had just been invented. The internet was in its very formative years, there were no smartphones and traditional forms of retail still dominated.  

In the decades that followed we have witnessed the birth of the digital economy and with it an unprecedented shift in the way we purchase goods and services. This is as true for rail as it is in retail. These days just 12% of our customers are buying their tickets directly from a ticket office.  

The industry has innovated in other areas. This week has seen contactless payment introduced at a further 52 stations across London and the South-East, meaning customers can simply tap in and tap out to travel on the network. There are more ways to plan your journey, buy tickets and reserve your seat, with apps that make it easy to find the best deals. We have improved customer-facing information so you can get real time updates about your train. And a lot of work has been done to simplify fares through the successful trial of single leg pricing on LNER – a customer-first approach that takes the hassle out of finding the best value ticket for your journey.  

The way we operate our stations needs to catch up. We want to make the whole passenger experience better, improving not just how trains run but also improving our stations and ticket sales. Our people are the lifeblood of this industry, and we know that our customers still value having a friendly face to talk to at the station to help with their queries. We’ve been meeting with organisations representing customers with specific needs so that we understand their views and can put plans in place to support them through this change.  

Getting more staff out from behind the glass of ticket offices will ensure they are on hand to help sell tickets and give journey planning advice face to face. 

Higher staff visibility on platforms will also help deter anti-social behaviour, making passengers feel safer, and ensure staff are available to ensure our service is accessible to all.   

And we must make it easier for our busiest stations to attract new retail partnerships – giving customers the widest choice of shops and cafes to enjoy before boarding their train.  

The rail network is the very fabric of our nation.  For generations it has connected families and communities together. It is the life’s blood of Britain’s tourism and leisure industry and is the nerve engine that drives Britain’s growth. 

So we cannot afford to wait. The railway is too important to this country to be preserved in aspic while the world moves on around us. That would be a disaster both for the future of the industry, and for our staff who deserve to have engaging, rewarding roles, building skills that are invaluable for the next stages in their careers, whether in rail or another modern industry. Failure to act risks managed decline; seizing the initiative means we can build a thriving network that puts customers first, and ensures the long-term future of the sector and the many thousands of jobs it supports. 

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