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Bouncing Back with David Sidebottom of Transport Focus

11 min

Ahead of Peloton’s ‘Bouncing Back’ virtual event on 11 August, Quadrant Transport sat down with keynote speaker and director at Transport Focus, David Sidebottom. We talk flexi-travel, how the network can achieve its ‘quick wins’, and more

Could you give us your general thoughts as to how the rail and wider transport sector has responded to challenges during this pandemic?

DS: I think if we rewind from four months ago to go from the scenes of crowded trains and platforms, you think about where some of the performance issues were and some of the politics around the railways, particularly thinking of Northern and TransPennine Express being in the north of England.

And how tricky that was at the time – and you fast-forward in the space of what, a few days? A couple of weeks? The railway losing 95% of its passengers and providing that vital service for key workers and those who needed to make essential trips on a much more reliable and punctual basis.

I think the railway deserves a big shoutout and the staff, particularly in those first few weeks and obviously throughout the period

I think the railway deserves a big shoutout and the staff, particularly in those first few weeks and obviously throughout the period; turning up for work and delivering a service that passengers could trust, and actually handling some difficult situation as a frontline member of the railway and dealing with some difficult situations. So you’ve got to recognise that through all of this.

David Sidebottom

I think what was interesting was the inevitable reaction of the people who were either furloughed or advised to work from home and had some form of rail season ticket – I think that was an indicator really in the first couple of weeks as people were relinquishing and cancelling rail season tickets.

I guess that was when the alarm bells began to ring as to what people were going to do when they did come back to work, what that meant for revenue, what that meant for investment in the railway by season ticket holders – and I think as we are now that the work that Transport Focus has been doing and others, looking at people’s attitudes to getting people back onto the railway, getting back on public transport generally – there is an anxiety out there. People are concerned about a number of things, ranging from ‘do I want to travel?’ ‘do I want to jump on a train or a bus, when I can work from home?’

You highlighted the value of flexible ticketing last week from Northern Rail – where else do you see TOCs and Network Rail getting more agile in responding to changing working practices?

DS: I don’t study European railways particularly, because I think there are quite a few differences – but it’s interesting to see that as routes reopen again and open their doors is that ability to do some sort of discounted offer or something, and clearly the flexi-season ticket was something that was on the stocks before going into lockdown. I think it was right – there were signs then prior to going into lockdown that rail commuters, particularly with London and the south-east, was shifting a bit.

Clearly what’s landed now with the virus has made people and employers reconsider what they want their workforce to do. I think the more we see busier trains, more people stood on platforms, more people getting to a safe level, it becomes more socially normal to do it.

I think the more we see busier trains, more people stood on platforms, more people getting to a safe level, it becomes more socially normal to do it

I think September will be a turning point – I think some of the research coming out from the CBI indicated that business will slowly look to get some people back to work in September as schools reopen, and also you have got to think about the wellbeing of people who are currently working home. Not everyone is sat in a nice comfortable room where they can close the door to their office and switch off again when they finish.

Working conditions at home are not great for everybody – so I think there will be a trickle back in September of people to the workplace, and then that’s the ideal thing behind the flexi-season ticket, and other deals that offer for a sufficient discount for people to think ‘my one day a week or two days a week in the office initially is worth me buying a product that actually reflects my needs’.

I think that mix of flexi-tickets or discounted prices that incentives people back on initially – it will be fascinating to see what happens with the traditionally January fares increase. Our inflation is actually incredibly low at the moment, so any traditional increase will be modest, but it’s an interesting political point to bat around in the next few months.

How important is dipping into different pools of people – active travel, integrated transport, micro-mobility – as we adjust to the new normal and the railways won’t be receiving as much in commuter fares? And with train tourism – we saw this week the Carlisle to Settle services starting up – do you see potential in the train tourism spaces?

DS: I think so. I think the traditional commuter market is going to look different. No one really knows for sure, but it is very difficult to see that the intensity of rail commuting will continue at the levels that we saw before. And particularly thinking about how, if people are perhaps looking at some of their leisure trips – i.e. doing a bit of shopping or whatever – a bit closer to home, rather than necessarily going into the town or the city centre. That might alter some of that off-peak and weekend demand.

London Underground, c. Marco Chilese

I think the railway like every other transport sector at the moment, like the airlines or bus services, have to be very agile, understand its markets and potential markets, and if there is a push to get the railway to the point where it can increase the off-peak demand in a classic sense of that during a day or at a weekend what the leisure industry looks like, and what the hospitality industry looks like in the evening, that still feels sluggish. It’s not going back to anything we felt like previously, so I think that’s going to be an interesting challenge.

But as always there is an opportunity there, with the right product, marketing, and approach and people to buy, particularly encouraging people in groups to travel, of course adhering to social distancing rules. I think that has been a little bit of an Achilles’ heel of transport generally, but I think the railway has done some stuff like duo tickets and flexible route travel, but I’m making it abundantly obvious that it’s easier and cheaper to pack a family of four into a car than it is to pack a family of four onto a train – and we need to think about how we can manage that in the future.

The future of major rail projects: HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail, Midlands Engine – if capacity was a huge factor behind the development of these schemes, could the national government look for more localised, agile projects? And should they?

DS: It feels like that. I don’t claim to be the historian in all of this, but I suspect that the ambition for the big longer-term projects, and I’m thinking in particular Northern Powerhouse Rail, and the ability and the vision that that sets for people who grew up and get educated for jobs across the north, I think is still valid now as it will be in 20-30 years time.

Someone growing up in Bradford, for example, gets locally educated, could go to university somewhere else, and then get a job in the north and continue on a frequent and regular basis. The interesting lesson short-term here is about the ability to run a railway at less than its 100% capacity and frequency, and how successful that has been in the past four months. How far do we stretch that now? Given the forecasted passenger numbers, do we want to stick with the railway that is desperately reliable, more reliable than it was up to the 23 March, to give passengers the confidence to use it.

Focus on what is important for passengers, which is a punctual and reliable railway. That’s the best marketing tool that anyone can give at the moment, so making sure that people can turn up with confidence

Yes cost and value for money features in there, but we published a piece of work we did last week which was done just prior to lockdown, asking just under 15,000 rail passengers about the priorities for improvement. And, yes, once again, the top priorities were around value for money, reliability, and punctuality, and frequency of services – but a slightly marked difference in the north, where reliability and getting a seat were higher importance ratings than other ends of the country.

That reflected I think the performance that this had. Passengers do have long-ish memories, so I think [the UK Government] will be thinking about investing in the here and now, and investing in the long-term. If we can find that tipping point of getting enough capacity back on so people feel safe to travel at a safe social distancing, and maintain through the busy corridors such as Castlefield into Manchester, with enough capacity and longer trains to run reliably enough, that’s the best way of selling the railway to anybody, that it’s reliable, punctual, and safe.

We’ve seen on consecutive weekends reports in The Times and Telegraph of a potential renationalisation of the railways – what’s your stance on this and how could this impact passenger services?

DS: I don’t know about the scale of things, but [that was] certainly the indication that everyone was getting from the Williams Rail Review – I know that’s been put to the sidings a bit.  Whether we’ll see a Williams-lite approach that enables the government to be able to somehow move out of the Emergency Measures Agreement, because that’s coming up fast, and I think if you listen to the grapevine, there were a number of operators prior to lockdown who were queuing up at the Operator of Last Resorts’ door to say ‘look, we’re not in a strong financial position, and this may be something we have to look at in the future’.

So I think there is a lot of question marks over the state’s control, and I think the government is trying to find a way of a longer-term restructure. The details of which I don’t know, and I suspect some of these things will start to emerge pretty soon as we get to the point where the EMAs start to expire, and whether the Operator of Last Resorts is the natural vehicle for some sort of holding pattern for these operators. Clearly there’s people’s jobs and livelihoods involved in all of this, and I don’t know to be absolutely honest – but it’s pointing in one direction. I’m not sure with the private sector commitment at the moment with passenger numbers so hard to forecast at the moment for revenue.

What is the most important ‘win’ that the railways need to achieve in the short-term to give it the best possible platform for Bouncing Back?

DS: If you’d have asked me this question a year ago, I would have said exactly the same answer: focus on what is important for passengers, which is a punctual and reliable railway. That’s the best marketing tool that anyone can give at the moment, so making sure that people can turn up with confidence.

We don’t want to see scenes we saw in February where we were seeing cancelled trains at short notice, passengers being squashed onto trains across the North, and clearly there has been other challenges over the past two years, but I think the ability to have that reliability. It may not mean that we get back to the levels seen pre-COVID up to the middle of March, but if we can get that tipping point right and getting a punctual and reliable railway, that’s the best marketing tool to people coming back, or indeed to people who want to start using the railway again.

To find out how to attend Peloton’s Bouncing Back virtual seminar, click here!