Written evidence submitted by Transport Focus (RIW0011)
Transport Focus is the independent, statutory consumer watchdog promoting the interests of transport users. Working with transport providers and Governments across England, Scotland and Wales – and in close partnership with our colleagues at London TravelWatch – we ensure that the users’ voice is heard.
Transport Focus welcomes the opportunity to respond to this inquiry. Our response is informed both by our extensive evidence base and insight gathered through the engagement of our work in Wales.
Responding from a user perspective
Where does responsibility lie for rail infrastructure in Wales?
Responsibility for Wales and Borders rail infrastructure rests with both UK Government, through Network Rail and Welsh Government. Transport for Wales has responsibility for the Core Valleys Lines and Department for Transport has responsibility for the rest of the network.
How effectively do the UK and Welsh Governments co-operate with one another in the management, and funding, of rail infrastructure in Wales?
Our submission to the Williams Review on the structure of the rail industry reports that passengers’ understanding of how the railway is structured and operates is limited and vague. They know that train companies run trains and that ‘someone’ owns the tracks and that Governments have ‘some sort of role’. However, most passengers knew what they wanted from the railway – their focus was on outputs rather than structures. Equally, the lack of clarity and the sense of fragmentation often led to conflicting expectations and confusion about who was in control and where all the money from fares went. The question of accountability, or a lack of it, came up frequently. This coupled with the perceived lack of customer-focus led many to think that the system was based around the needs of the railway rather than the needs of passengers.
Should responsibility for railway infrastructure in Wales be fully devolved?
The fundamental principle that should guide decisions on how services in Wales are run must be what is best for the passenger. We believe that the decisions on rail passenger services in Wales should be determined against the ‘passenger test’ which incorporates three core questions:
The current situation in Wales contrasts with arrangements in Scotland where rail infrastructure responsibilities are devolved. This devolution it could be argued has led to an increased focus and delivery on infrastructure projects that deliver passenger benefits. For example major infrastructure projects delivered, include:
The devolved arrangements give the Scottish Government powers to set the strategic direction and funding priorities for Scotland, to specify the outputs that they wish the rail industry to deliver (often expressed in terms of performance levels, and requirements in respect of capacity and journey times), and to set out the funding that will be made available to support their delivery. This is done to correspond with the railway five-year control period cycles. The specification of Scottish Government’s requirements are informed by a range of evidence and through engagement with stakeholders and a public consultation. In order to achieve the vision for rail, the approach to the development of rail infrastructure and services is driven by the following principles:
However, it needs to be acknowledged that replicating the Scottish model will be much harder in Wales. The nature of the border and the infrastructure is different and far less self-contained in Wales than it is in Scotland. In Wales there is far greater interaction and crossing the border with England. Indeed, the main North-South spine of the network operates in England. Greater devolution would not resolve this and it will inevitably remain an area where co-ordination and collaboration are crucial.
What share of investment has Wales secured in its rail infrastructure since privatisation came into effect in 1994, and how sufficient is this level of investment?
From a passenger perspective, we reported on what passengers wanted from the future Wales and Borders rail service, ahead of the franchise change in 2018. They characterised the infrastructure as outdated and in need of investment. Trains were seen as being old-fashioned, poorly maintained and dirty, with limited capacity. Passengers experienced persistent delays. Stations were also in need of investment. Some urban stations had been renovated but others were seen as neglected and in need of investment. Passengers feel that stations that should be ‘flagships’, such as Cardiff Central, often felt dated and lacking amenity and smaller stations suffered from a lack of basic facilities. There have also been setbacks in investment, with scaling back of electrification in South Wales and delays to plans for this in North Wales. Upgrades to rolling stock have also been delayed, with continued use of ‘pacer’ trains presenting hardship for people with reduced mobility.
Pre-Covid results from the National Rail Passenger Survey show some improvement in passenger satisfaction, but point to a lot more work being needed:
Passenger satisfaction – National Rail Passenger Survey
Overall satisfaction with the station
Upkeep and repair of station buildings and platforms
Toilet facilities at the station
Facilities for car parking
Facilities for bicycle parking
Personal security at the station
Shelter facilities at the station
Availability of seating at the station
Availability of Wi-Fi at the station
Upkeep and repair of the train
Toilet facilities onboard
Step or gap between the train and the platform
Level of crowding
This picture declines for those who are older or have mobility difficulties, with half of stations in Wales not properly accessible and one third without wheelchair access.
Welsh Government procured the new rail contract and the substance emerging from the specification shows considerable ambition, which is also the theme of the Wales Transport Strategy. This ambition will require considerable investment, not only in rail but across modes and across Wales and the Borders, not least to provide options and encourage modal shift in support of Government targets for zero emissions and sustainability.
How is funding allocated to rail infrastructure projects across the UK and how are the different infrastructure needs of the regions and nations of the UK assessed?
The closer that national strategy is aligned with passenger priorities the better the potential service for passengers. In an era of cost consciousness and efficiency it will be essential that scarce resources are focused on the things that deliver the biggest passenger ‘dividend’.
Our work shows that rail passengers’ top priorities for improvement are reliability and punctuality, value for money and getting a seat. In Wales, clean toilets, comfort onboard and environmentally friendly journeys are placed higher. Younger passengers also place higher importance on more environmentally friendly journeys, along with better information during delays, fewer disruptions and good connections. Passengers with a disability put clean toilets, improved personal security and step-free access higher on their list. Tables of priorities for improvement are collated in Appendix 1.
The Borders have particular sensitivity and mechanisms will be required to ensure that the Welsh and UK Governments maintain ongoing liaison and both bodies have a say, and a stake, in the decision-making processes as they affect cross-border matters. Funding streams must also be available for stations and services on both sides of the border.
There may also be scope for developing the role of the Cross-Border Strategic Rail Forum – currently chaired by Transport Focus and attended by Transport for Wales and Department for Transport, alongside bordering English authorities – which scrutinises performance and service delivery in the Borders region, from a user perspective.
What will be the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic for the railway network in Wales (including the sustainability of services and potential impact on investment in railway infrastructure)?
As part of our travel during Covid-19 research, we asked our Transport User Community what impact this has had on their priorities. Our report shows that safety has emerged as a central priority for rail passengers. While punctuality, reliability, seating and frequency remain the ‘core’ of what rail users want, the community has realised that these metrics now serve a different purpose. In addition to a smooth journey, these priorities are now understood as helping to deliver a safe and COVID-secure one.
Post-pandemic, most argue that the overall sense of safety will continue to be important. It may change slightly to encompass feelings like ‘comfort’ or ‘confidence’ in public transport, but few are willing to concede that the need to feel safe will decline, even if the pandemic does. The old priorities have to some extent been re-framed to feed into safety, serving a dual purpose:
Key findings from our insight over the past year are highlighted in our report on key lessons for 2021 and beyond. This draws out some of the lessons that governments and transport operators can apply to help those that need to travel now feel more confident and help more people return to public transport when restrictions have eased.
There is significant work to do to ensure that public transport does not feel different to other activities and that social distancing and strong sanitation habits continue. Providing enough capacity with better information about how busy services are expected to be, more efforts to drive up compliance with face coverings and evidence of enhanced cleanliness will be important in boosting confidence and helping passengers to feel safe.
Further ahead, confidence can be rebuilt by reducing barriers and encouraging passengers to experience the benefits of travelling by public transport again. New fares and tickets are needed to suit different travel patterns and help rebuild passenger numbers and revenue when the time is right. Tackling perceptions of those who used to use public transport regularly will be vital. Positive communications and ‘word of mouth’ play a role, but the best way will be to draw people back onboard so they can see for themselves. Our insight points to five key areas where efforts should be focused:
During the post-lockdown period rail punctuality has been around 90-95 per cent (PPM measure) – levels almost unheard of a few months earlier. All Transport Focus’s research shows the importance of a reliable, punctual service – it is one of passengers’ top priorities for improvement and a main driver of passenger satisfaction. As full timetables are re-introduced and as more people return to travel, the challenge will be to maintain these levels of performance. We believe there is a need to review timetables and fix any pinch-points before reliability becomes an issue again. This could lead to a difficult trade-off between frequency/capacity and performance, but we believe that it is better that this debate is had rather than us just drifting back to how things were.
Extreme weather conditions are becoming much more common – barely a year goes by without new records being set. The tragic accident at Stonehaven and derailment at Llangennech have given this a fresh and urgent emphasis. The inquiry into Stonehaven and the reviews being undertaken by Network Rail into weather related resilience will invariably have an impact on future rail operations – both in terms of infrastructure management and in operational decisions.
What opportunities are there for Wales as a result of the recently launched Union Connectivity Review?
The review is equally relevant and inclusive to both people and place, needing to recognise the different investment needs in cities, towns and rural areas. The transport system needs to be accessible, addressing barriers and provide sustainable options as well as defining a joined-up network enabling door-to-door journeys. Our work with bus passengers shows that services going to more places is their second highest priority and the top priority for non-users and both sets agree that a good bus network is important to the local area (93 per cent of users and 82 per cent of non-users agree).
Rail passengers also want this network to be effective, placing good connections in the top half of their priorities for improvement; but the National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS) shows the most recent satisfaction with transport connections for Wales and Borders is only 65 per cent.
The Wales Transport Strategy has ambitions for better connectivity at its heart. Alongside the Union Connectivity review, there is a real prospect for delivering better journey opportunities across Wales. Achieving the vision will be dependent on the delivery, monitoring and evaluation of the priorities, outcomes, policies and enablers which underpin the vision.
Transport Focus stands ready to assist with measuring and assessing needs, aspirations and delivery, from a user perspective.
Rail passengers’ priorities
Priorities for improving stations (%)
Rail passengers’ priorities – by age
Rail passengers’ priorities – passengers with a disability
 The structure of the rail industry – what do passengers think? Transport Focus. 2019
 The future of the Wales and Borders rail service: what passengers want, Transport Focus. 2017
 National Rail Passenger Survey – spring 2020, Transport Focus. 2020
 Rail passengers’ priorities for improvement, Transport Focus. 2020
 Transport User Community – rail and bus priorities, Transport Focus. 2020
 Travel during Covid-19: key lessons for 2021 and beyond, Transport Focus. 2021
 Bus passengers’ priorities for improvement, Transport Focus. 2020
 See note 4
 See note 3