Memorandum by Connex Transport (FOR 113)
THE FUTURE OF THE RAILWAYS
Connex South Eastern runs train services in
Kent, South London and parts of East Sussex, servicing 182 stations
and covering 773 km of track. The company runs approximately 1,700
train journeys a day and carries around 120,000 commuters into
London every weekday.
Connex Transport is part of Veolia (formerly
Vivendi), a major international player in the transport industry,
currently running commuter railways, in Germany, Sweden, Melbourne
(Australia) and Boston (USA), as well as light rail in France,
Spain and Ireland, long distance routes in Germany and buses in
the UK, France and Washington (USA). All together, Connex operates
transport networks in 22 countries. Its 2002 annual turnover was
£2.1 billion, making it one of the biggest transport groups
There are three different types of rail passenger
and three distinct answers to the question. The danger is that
the rail network is seen as one service meeting a similar need.
The vast majority of customers of a company
such as Connex are commuters, travelling along high-volume, high-frequency
routes into Central London. Typically their journeys are under
an hour and generally the main issues for them are time, reliability
and comfort in that order. Most of them have no alternative means
of transport to get to work. There is little question that the
commuter railway is a vital part of big cities like London. Rising
housing costs mean people are forced to live farther and farther
away from the town centre where they work.
The second type of rail user is the long-distance
rail usercustomers of Virgin or GNER for example. For them
speed and comfort on board are key. The competition is car, coach
and air travel. These services can only compete in the long term
if there is massive investment in the infrastructure and faster
trains to get to a French or German TGV style system where, for
example, London to Manchester would be a 90 minute journey instead
of the current 150 or 180 minutes. The French TGV system has proven,
among other things, that within a three-hour journey range, passengers
preferred the train over the plane. That is probably a good way
to assess where a high-speed rail service would compete effectively
with the airlines. Beyond that limit, there seems to be a stronger
case to invest in air transport.
The third type of passenger is the off-peak
and rural traveller, usually travelling for leisure purposes.
For them cost is the key determining factor and again rail competes
with bus and car travel. However, there is considerable subsidy
for rural rail services. In some other countries notably France,
some rural rail services have been replaced by coaches which operate
to the same strict timetable. In fact the timetable includes both
rail and road services in a seamless way.
We have to get over the idea that this is somehow
downgrading the servicecoaches are often more reliable,
are much more flexible and can be just as comfortable as trains.
They are also a lot cheaper for relatively small numbers of passengers.
We can achieve considerable savings here in terms of money and
capacity if we are prepared to bite the bullet and replace a lot
of currently under-used rail services with timetabled coaches
None of the British commuters or rail users
would say that the current service is good enough, or even near
to being good enough, so that's probably enough evidence that
there is something wrong with our railway network.
But if the current network is not good enough
today, this does not mean that it has not improved since privatisation
in some respects.
Talking about Connex, there has been progress
in such areas as:
Reduction of train cancellations,
especially the ones due to staff shortages. In 2001, driver shortage
was one of the main problems in the South East of England. Today,
we have more drivers than necessary, thanks to a huge effort to
train new ones.
Information to passengers, with a
£20 million information system being installed last year
in most of its 180 stations.
New trains, with 210 carriages introduced
to-date, and on track to replace the Mark 1 rolling stock by the
end of 2004.
Needless to say, many mistakes have been made
along the way, like raising passenger expectations too high and
too quickly, putting a brand on a service which quality was not
under control and sometimes beyond control (infrastructure problems),
failure to handle train disruptions properly, and to some extend
a failure to listen to passengers, certainly in the early years
But if there was one thing to be changed now,
it should be Network Rail: let's face it, the industry cannot
succeed without a good infrastructure. If Network Rail succeeds,
we will deliver a better service. But if they don't, then passengers
will continue to be stuck on trains because of infrastructure
problems, and the fact that the trains are new won't make it any
better, and probably worse.
Reforming Network Rail does not seem an option,
after several changes already, but breaking it up into regional
companies would have at least the benefit of spreading the risk:
like train companies. Small infra companies would be more decentralised,
more accountable and more manageable, some would succeed, showing
the way forward for others.
As above, the passengers who are perhaps most
important are those who rely on the train every day to get from
home to work. Anything threatening commuter rail services has
an immediate impact on millions of people and thousands of businesses.
Commuter towns around London and other major cities rely on their
rail links as the basis for the local economy. There is, in my
opinion, a clear case in terms of UK competitiveness for investing
in and subsidising commuter rail services. As an example, it is
difficult to imagine a major company planning to set up a new
corporate HQ in Europe citing transport infrastructure problems
as a reason not to go to Paris, Frankfurt or Brussels. Yet this
would be the case in London.
THE UK NETWORK
Privatisation in the UK has brought in some
great benefits among train companies, in terms of clarity of objectives,
accountability of people, innovation, and some of those Train
companies have clearly done well in terms of performance improvements.
But we have barely scratched the surface compared to other continental
or American networks in terms of maintenance, customer service,
train cleanliness, marketing and overall quality of service.
Connex for example runs railways in the USA,
Australia, Sweden, Germany and other countries around the world.
Most of time with vertical integration between operations and
infrastructure. All of them deliver consistently good train performance
and quality of service. The one country where we have not achieved
what we (and the passengers) wanted is in the UK. It has been
a steep learning curve for us, and I would not suggest that we
could not have done some things better. But I believe that there
are some fundamental problems of structure and attitude within
the industry which have made our task more difficult, like:
The fragmentation of the industry,
leading to a difficulty to align strategies between operators,
infra and rolling stock companies.
Difficulty to reform and modernise.
It seems that the only way to improve the system is by spending
more money. But some networks and trains abroad are older, but
more reliable, probably because they are better maintained.
Difficulty to accept ideas from other
industries. The rail industry lacks new talents. Is it because
they don't want to work for the railways . . . or because the
railways don't want them?
An almost complete inability to communicate
with the passengers. There is a lot of advertising, a lot of communication,
but very few passengers manage to connect what they read and hear
with what they experience day-in, day-out. That creates a lack
of trust in the railway industry, which is almost unique in the
world. Which other country talks so much about its railway system?
Finally, because of the very structure
of the industry, it is still almost impossible for private companies
to plan for the long term, neither in terms of policy nor in terms
of return on investment or profitability. As a consequence, they
take on less and less risks, when they don't pull out of the rail
market all together, which probably explains why the industry
has become so risk-averse recently.
In summary, the railways are absolutely necessary,
at least in some parts of the country. They can improve a lot
over the coming years, but that will require more reforming than
funding, and a different way to involve stakeholders. In particular,
we must improve the way we communicate with passengers and ask
them to bear with us while the industry continues to make necessary