Everyone understands that the rail network needs to be maintained, repaired and upgraded and that occasionally this needs to be done during operational hours. When this happens, typically passengers are transported by bus for part or all of their journey (should it therefore be called a ‘train replacement service’), and yet when passengers are informed of this, there is a general groan as there is an implicit understanding that their journeys will likely be either slower, less comfortable, less frequent or often all three.
With the exceptions of responding quickly to an unforeseen event such as a landslide or flooding, most closures are planned well in advance. Why then is it considered acceptable to charge the same money for a fare and provide a materially inferior service? Recently, I paid for a ticket on an express train with wi-fi, power sockets at each seat, tables and a buffet car, which was replaced due to electrification works in a tunnel. I fully expected to board a bus or coach with similar facilities. Instead, there was a double decker bus designed for urban transportation with no facilities and which was the slowest vehicle on the motorway. A journey that should have taken 45 minutes took nearly 2 hours.
The point of the example above isn’t to complain about my experience but to offer some ideas of how it could have been better. The decision to close the tunnel for a number of weeks was absolutely correct – giving unrestricted access for that time enabled a huge amount of progress to be made that would have been much more costly, more disruptive and would have required more person hours if it had been undertaken during weekends and evenings. However, in knowing that there would be a long-term closure, the experience could have been made better for the customers affected. Simply providing transport by bus to bridge the gap in the rail network is not enough. During the extended closure, thousands of passengers must have had a poor experience, and could have made the trip with a coach company more quickly and more comfortably and quite probably at a lower cost. Replacing with buses might have been a low cost and practical solution that addressed the basic requirement, but rather takes customers for granted. How many customers might they have lost and how long might it take them to get them back if at all? As a minimum, there should have been comfortable transport that minimised the time loss, and ideally provided comparable services such as wi-fi and power sockets. On the basis that coach travel is generally cheaper than rail travel, it might have generated some goodwill if a discount or voucher was given against future travel, even something as simple as a free cup of coffee would show that the customers were valued and would cost very little.
What more could be done? With knowledge of historical passenger journeys and booked travel there could have been the potential to send buses or coaches to the different stations based on where the future direction would be and to remove an additional connection.
For situations where some smaller stations are closed for maintenance, the use of historical and real time data, correlated with monitoring of passenger numbers on trains could enable the use of more appropriate transport. It might be the case that on a station towards the end of a commuter line late in the evening it could be less expensive for the rail company to put on a few taxis that would be more comfortable and quicker for passengers.
Improved passenger information might also help; often it can be non-existent, and whilst no train company wants to give its competitors as easy ride, particularly coach companies, just saying there is no service between Points A and B isn’t really acting in their customers’ interests. In the case of my recent experience, the closure of the line was much longer that was necessary, 20 miles or so, whereas it could have been reduced to less than 10 miles, minimising disruption and delay.
Getting it right could also mean more than just improving customer experience, although that should be incentive enough for transport companies aiming to maximise revenues. If a really good replacement service could be put in place that was frequent, comfortable, with minimal disruption, potentially supplemented by some sort of discount to show that customers were valued, there may be more opportunities to have longer shut downs in certain locations, which would potentially reduce the cost of undertaking the engineering works, reduce the time taken to undertake the works and drive improvement in the rail network more quickly than would be the case under current methods of working.
There would need to be an agreement between Network Rail, their contractors and the train operating companies as to the allocation of costs and savings and how and when the operation would be put in place, but ultimately, the financing for these works is ultimately from public funds, either through ticket revenue or from the UK Government via tax payers. As such, customers should be put ahead of the operation requirements of the TOCs or Network Rail.