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CILT Railway Study Forum Webinar on 21 May 2020 hosted by Jacqueline Starr on "The Road from Recovery to Reform".

Peter Wilkinson:
• PreCovid - we had one of the world's most successful networks, generating £4.2bn annual revenue but some wobbles beginning to appear - more new trains than ever before, but performance rather poor, we'd taken our eye off the basics and some operators were entering a serious financial position as a result of industrial action, with a decline in five-day commuting.
• Immediate PostCovid: railways slow to read but then acted quickly to make up for lost time by introducing emergency management contracts. Revenue down 92%, journeys down 95%, never happened in our history over 200 years - from £150M premium to £750M subsidy, becoming the Government's third or fourth greatest spending concern. Furlough kept companies afloat, otherwise many specialists would have gone bust. Train manufacturers are very dependent on China for parts, and absenteeism was going through the roof, while PRM compliance was at risk, so tremendous effort has gone into reinventing working methods in the supply chain. We were all committed to keeping the railway going so as to convey key workers, with defence requirements and freight, which meant keeping staff working - and we have lost a small number to coronavirus. But relations with the trades unions have improved, which will help as we try to restart. Managing social distancing is going to be our greatest challenge in a long time, we're going to have to demonstrate to government that we can do it, have mobilised over 3500 marshals, will put out strong messages about wearing face coverings but know that we risk being overwhelmed if demand exceeds 15% of previous capacity.
• What's around the corner: move to smart ticketing, a more agile railway with flexible working, not obvious that rail demand will come back like before, Treasury will be looking to us to reduce costs with more competitive procurement and questioning need for enhancements if the demand is not there any more due to people working at home etc. Will need different dwell-times in our Covid-friendly timetables.

Answers to questions:
‣ Going to have to dig our way out of an economic hole, adjusting our infrastructure and trains - taps could be turned on for infrastructure investment, but there will be a real squeeze on running costs.
‣ Freight companies are our only truly commercial businesses, they have done themselves an enormous affair by their flexibility. If passenger demand does not fully return, we shall have more capacity for freight.
‣ How can we reconcile ourselves to government message to use car rather than public transport: a paradox that will not be reconciled quickly, but I'm an optimist.
‣ How to move faster - we must get on with smart ticketing, we have greatest driving force since war and the switch from steam, now is the time to break some rules, eg make system so good that we can do without penalty fares.
‣ Even before Williams, franchising had become precarious, Shapps is a man on a mission, Heaton-Harris is the best rail minister we've had, pace of change will quicken but don't know in which direction.
‣ Don't see conditions for exiting emergency agreements coming onto our screens any time soon. Got to find ways of transitioning ourselves, then look at what kind of contract might replace franchises. While the railway is in the place it's in, the agenda is going to be driven by cost.
‣ What happens if everyone flexes on the same three days : we are trying to start the discussion with the business community so as to make more productive use of capacity, which a combination of mad rush Monday and empty Friday was not. We must buy ourselves more resilience, we were too tightly wound with delays spreading right across the country.

Notes by John Yellowlees


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