Steve Chambers explores new ways for the public to participate in railway planning

Public transport advocates have been calling for a railway that is more focussed on the experiences and needs of passengers. Passenger rail franchising is on the way out, but the details of how the replacement system might engage with passengers is unclear. For an organisation the size of the national railway network, is this even possible? And if it is, what would it look like?

Under the franchise system a consultation exercise took place when franchises were renewed or redrawn every couple of years. This was more of a stakeholder consultation than an exercise in understanding passenger desires, although organisations like Passenger Focus would often inform the debate with insights they had gathered from railway users.

In this regime the main feedback passengers gave to operators was by voting with the their feet. The growth in passenger demand, the journeys they made and the types of tickets they purchased formed the basis for understanding passenger need. But an approach like this lost a lot of detail about how passengers felt about their journeys. Of more concern, that approach erased experiences of, for example, blind or partially sighted passengers.

Some franchises sought to fill this gap by holding regular passenger panel focus groups. I participated in one of these for a time and it was held in good faith with a high degree of transparency. The flow of information went more in one direction than the other. Although feedback was actively sought, it was more an exercise in informing.

An argument against increased public participation in transport governance is that people will not come forward or will only come from particular groups, still leaving out the insights of people who have been excluded from participating in the past. This is quite simply a cop out. One of the basic rules of engagement and consultation is ‘go where the people are’. If a group you are interested in hearing from aren’t going to your focus group then find another way to engage, be it online, in person at stations, through social media or over the telephone. Get creative!

I’m concerned the change in governance from franchising might reduce the opportunities for public participation. We need to know what is proposed to replace the existing measures that, although lacking, were guaranteed by the franchise process and agreements.

The need for public engagement in the railway has never been greater. As the country recovers from the Coronavirus pandemic we might find ourselves with a transport network people are still nervous about using. We will only find a way to help these passengers back on the railway if we understand their needs and fears.

We have to recognise passenger flows have most likely changed forever. Through engagement with passengers we can learn how the need for mobility has altered. Moving from a rush-hour focussed transit network to more distributed demand is an opportunity for the railway. But we’ll need to understand the needs of passengers in order to adjust ticketing, stopping patterns and service levels.

A good starting point for engagement is to ask questions without being afraid of the answers. Too often in the past the way consultations are framed is with limited choices or a preferred answer in mind. And the conversation must include people who do not use the railway. This is more important that ever as traffic levels recover and exceed pre-COVID levels but railway patronage does not. The new and existing barriers to using the railway need to be understood.

To get the level of engagement needed to really understand the needs of passengers and get the best results you have to put more power in their hands. Having a hand in designing services is a far more compelling proposition than forming part of a focus group. This might sound like unworkable nonsense, but the railway already engages some communities at this kind of level through community rail partnerships.

The challenge for a reforming railway is, for consultation purposes, to divide the network up into small enough routes or areas so a relationship can form with passengers. It would be a mistake to make a centralised body responsible for passenger engagement unless it was adequately resourced to have local points of contact.

If this was done right, with passengers helping to produce the services themselves, we would not end up with long distance trains with uncomfortably hard seats or cycle storage that is woefully inadequate. We’d also discover passenger insights that right now we just don’t know about.

There is a lot of good practice in community engagement and enablement out there. It really is time for transport planning to become braver. This will only come from it being properly resourced with real power in the hands of people. Who do you trust more to make decisions? The centralised power of the Department for Transport or passengers working with operators?