Martin Dean: Delivering on the Williams-Shapps Plan

Martin Dean is Managing Director, Business Development at Go-Ahead Group.

As our railways move into a new era the big challenge is to rebuild customer numbers to enable a green recovery.  There’s been a welcome increase in rail travel since the summer, with leisure travel now at 90% of pre-pandemic journeys.  But commuting has become more discretionary.  The days of masses of people uncomfortably crammed in at the peak of the peak are thankfully gone.  Commuting does offer benefits from in person interaction and having separation of work from home, but rail companies need to sell what has become more of a choice.

To do this we need to build on this year’s progress with flexible season tickets and contactless pay-as-you-go ticketing, and go further down the road of fares reform to build customer trust.  And we need more successful marketing like the national Back on Track campaign and the local partnerships train operators have in place with tourist bodies and business groups.

Closing the wide gap between revenue and cost requires private sector dynamism and innovation.  Innovation has provided customers with more choice in station retail, apps to improve the journey experience and new multi-modal ticketing products.  And it has driven down costs in sectors like engineering with lean techniques and predictive maintenance.

A properly incentivised private sector will draw upon expertise from far and wide to ensure it meets the contractual objectives it is set.  Necessity often drives innovation – we have seen the best of this in the UK in the last year with private sector innovation delivering the Government’s target of a vaccine against Covid-19.  Private train operators can make decisions based on their knowledge of what customers want and how best to meet them; ensuring that political involvement is focussed on broader objectives.  And the private sector is ready to invest when the opportunity arises.  In Go-Ahead’s successful bid for the GTR franchise we added to the 1,140 carriages already on order for Thameslink with £145m investment in 108 new carriages for Gatwick Express and £240m investment in 150 carriages for Great Northern.

Go-Ahead welcomes the creation of Great British Railways and recognises the need for a more joined-up railway.  Our key recommendations for the new phase are:

  • Create an incentive regime which focuses on growing passenger numbers as we recover from the pandemic, drawing on train operators’ expertise in marketing and customer service; and encouraging innovation and better customer service
  • Continue to take advantage of the private sector model to drive down costs, draw upon a wider pool of expertise and open up access to alternative sources of capital
  • Prioritise the role rail can play in tackling the climate emergency via modal shift and getting the railways to net zero carbon as soon as possible
  • Use private sector expertise to anticipate, meet and respond to customer demand, owning the end-to-end customer interface in a way which makes operators best placed to understand and meet their need

You can read more about our vision for the future of rail here:

Read our report

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