Increasing capacity, relieving congestion and providing improved passenger facilities have been the ostensive aims of Network Rail’s ongoing upgrade plan in the UK. However, one of the most interesting aspects of the ongoing reform programme has been the organisation’s bold steps towards devolution, and the effect this is having on how the railway is managed.

In February, Network Rail confirmed that much of the decision-making had been devolved from the organisation to its routes, with 99% of work now being approved at a local level. Significant powers have been delegated to individual route operators, which can consult with train operating companies (TOCs) to speed up decision-making processes and provide specific improvements for passengers in their area.

Now, the wave of devolution and the prospect of large-scale rail improvements have spurred the creation of a new system to keep the UK’s railways on track. Network Rail is in the process of forming new supervisory boards, comprising the managing directors of regional train routes and rail company representatives, to hold the rail industry accountable for improvements along its routes.

“The supervisory boards are helping improve day-to-day operational performance for passengers much further by working closer together, as well as by bringing long-term planning for track and trains together to minimise potential disruption as much as possible,” says a Network Rail spokesperson. “We are building on existing alliances to create joint targets to improve railway performance and the experience for the passenger.”

Monitoring the railways

At the time of writing, Network Rail has set up supervisory boards on three routes, including the Western route out of London Paddington, the East Coast main line out of King’s Cross and Wales.

One of the key organisations sitting on the boards is UK passenger advocate Transport Focus. The introduction of the organisation to these boards is expected to amplify the voice of passengers, allowing particular issues gleaned from its research to be brought to the forefront.

“The introduction of the organisation to these boards is expected to amplify the voice of passengers.”

Transport Focus senior stakeholder manager Nina Howe was selected to join the board covering the Western franchise, the first created in the country. The move to include a passenger representative was crucial for the boards, she argues.

“From the outset, there was an intention to have a passenger representative on these boards which is obviously really positive,” Howe says. “We’re really pleased that we’re able to provide the voice of the passenger. We’ve been pressing for a bigger passenger voice in planning and decision-making, and this is a real opportunity to make sure decisions that are made reflect passenger’s expectations and priorities.”

Reviewing the evidence

Transport Focus carries out evidence-based campaigning and research and uses this knowledge to push for improvements on behalf of rail passengers. The company consults more than 60,000 rail users a year to produce its National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS), which allows it to assess public opinion about 30 specific aspects of service, as well as how satisfied people are overall.

“What we advocate is based on what we know and understand from what passengers are telling us, so we have the track survey which is the NRPS, but we also have issue-specific research, so on engineering work or priorities for improvement,” Howe says.

This ‘wealth of experience’ can then be drawn upon in supervisory board meetings to ensure that long-term planning for rail improvements will not impact unnecessarily on passengers. In the case of the Western rail franchise, this is focusing on action plans put together by leadership teams from Network Rail, GWR and Heathrow Express.

“Transport Focus uses its knowledge to push for improvements on behalf of rail passengers.”

“It’s not just a case of looking at what people want but how they want them delivered,” says Howe. “For example, engineering [and] information during engineering periods – when do people need it? How can it be most useful to them?”

Overall, Howe says Transport Focus’s findings show that what passengers want most of all is to have punctual trains that don’t break down. Though largely positive, this year’s NRPS showed a significant variation in satisfaction with punctuality and reliability, with the highest scoring train operating company marked at 98% and the lowest at a mere 51%.

“The fundamental attribute of a successful journey is the basics of punctuality and reliability,” Howe says. “We know from our work and looking at our priorities for improvement that capacity is also an issue, so getting a seat scores quite highly.”

Nevertheless, it’s still up to rail organisations to make the right decision. According to Howe, the supervisory boards don’t have “formal powers to direct” but rather they “influence and inform executive decisions within organisations”.

“There’s kind of a collective commitment from senior figures within the rail industry to work together, identify issues and find solutions to drive improvements,” she says.

Devolution: the rise of local routes

Transport Focus’s role on the supervisory board appears to be an example of how Network Rail has attempted to make rail improvements more transparent to passengers. Local route operators have been working with their TOCs and freight operating companies to create new route objective ‘scorecards’, which will act as a public measure showing how close they are to their goals.

Howe explains the potential benefits of Network Rail’s transformation from a centrally operated organisation to one predominantly run by local teams for local passengers.

“Different routes have different challenges and needs – devolution can help reflect that, especially if the views of the users of those networks are taken into account,” she says. “The ability to compare could also help spread best practices.”

By early 2018, Network Rail aims to have set up supervisory boards across nine devolved routes operating the railway in their region, and these routes will play an important role in years to come. In October 2017, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said around £48bn is expected to be spent across the rail network in England and Wales from 2019 to 2024, with budgets set at a local level.

“This investment is about boosting reliability and punctuality for millions of journeys, and we will do this alongside building major upgrades around the country and delivering new, faster, more comfortable trains,” Grayling said.

Whether Network Rail will achieve its ambitious infrastructure goals is yet to be seen. However, the inclusion of Transport Focus in a supervisory position has provided passengers with a much-needed megaphone through which their concerns can be voiced at the right volume.