Optimising railway performance: the impact of passenger focus

Taryn Hide, Market Director - Advisory and Analytics
13 June 2024
man on his phone at a train platform
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The UK's railway system, one of the oldest in the world, has evolved significantly since Stephenson’s steam locomotive entered public service in 1825. Despite numerous structural and technological changes, the consistent focus has been on creating a safe, efficient, and cost-effective mode of transport.

Rail network operators and train operating companies work together towards achieving one common goal - providing a service that not only meets passenger needs and expectations, but routinely exceeds them. Whilst this may seem relatively straightforward on paper, this often isn’t the case. That’s because operating an old, busy, and complex network means that service performance, and by extension passenger satisfaction, must sometimes be traded-off against the immediate need to keep infrastructure functioning, efficient and safe. With more traffic on the networks, more climate related issues to deal with, and less time and money available, we can appreciate the complexity and scale of the challenges faced by the industry, both in addressing a myriad of technical issues and in maintaining and improving passenger satisfaction rates.  

So how can network managers and train service providers work together to optimise their operations whilst also delivering a consistent and excellent customer service? The answer may lie in performance strategy.  

Achieving network joy – why passenger-centric performance strategies matter  

Passengers expect network providers to run safe, efficient, and accessible railway systems, whilst also expecting train operators to deliver affordable, reliable, and predictable train services with minimal levels of disruption. 

To achieve these passenger expectations, both rail network operators and train operators need to work together to balance running an efficient railway whilst also delivering consistently high passenger satisfaction levels. Why? Because improving passengers’ experience boosts rail demand and supports a shift from private to public transport. This helps the UK to accelerate its decarbonisation agenda; reduces congestion on our over-crowded roads; and helps make rail more financially sustainable and less dependent on public subsidy.  

Currently, much of the investment in the rail network is geared towards improving the infrastructure, including prioritising asset management activities so that train companies can run smooth and efficient services.  

The rail system’s constant need for investment and maintenance is further compounded by its use by a variety of train services - from local commuter trains and intercity services to freight deliveries. Add to this, the desire to grow revenue by increasing track usage, it becomes clear why finding that perfect balance between operational excellence and customer satisfaction, can sometimes become elusive for network operators. The passenger experience is often considered too late in the planning and design process, more as a by-product of an efficient rail system than as a key objective. 

One way of addressing this is through more targeted and explicit objectives and performance measures for customer service. This follows the notion of ‘what gets measured gets done’. 

This is why network operators need to move towards the concept of passenger-weighted delay as a more holistic measure of train services performance, especially when it comes to the shared operational goals with train companies. Passenger-weighted delay metrics as a performance indicator, reflect growing recognition across the rail sector for the need to align performance indicators with customer expectations. By converting every operational delay on the network into a passenger impact metric, and then measuring each delay by the number of potential people affected (whether that is a late train, a service cancellation, or a missed connection), we can truly begin to quantify the importance of stricter rules and regulations around prioritising service usage and possession optimisation.  

But how exactly can network operators simultaneously manage the competing demands of infrastructure maintenance, and the performance metrics of passenger rail services? Technology, specifically data analytics, is the key to managing and tracking the thousands of data points that measure the performances of all the different services across the rail network.  

The role of data intelligence in driving passenger-centric performance measures 

Data intelligence enables us to sustain a well-maintained rail network focused on enhancing operational efficiencies together with high passenger satisfaction levels necessary to grow demand. This is achieved through passenger-weighted delay measures involving fully embedded data intelligence to balance conflicting priorities such as those involving access to the network.  

This enables network providers to use data to accurately measure and act upon train delays in a timely and proactive way, thus transforming the performance of rail services. A greater understanding and contextualisation of passenger-weighted delays informs a wide variety of planning and operational decisions. For example, better planning for and management of possessions according to changing travel patterns and infrastructure performance. Data integration at scale, across different sources, regions, and departments within a network, empowers network providers to improve decision-making throughout their entire operations. Such a standardised approach to data management and monitoring is central to switching the focus to meet the evolving needs of passengers. 

Another example in the effective use of data analytics is the measuring of sub-threshold delays (delays of less than 3 minutes) to gain better understanding of overall network performance. These types of delays are typically not investigated or factored into existing performance metrics. Ensuring the tracking of this type of delay pattern can help further improve network performance and lead to further increases in both operational efficiency and passenger satisfaction rates.  

However, such a bold focus on the impact of passenger delays requires that innovative digital solutions be embraced, and that we recognise the need for a shift in culture and ways of working. Data-led decisions must, by definition, lead to different outcomes if they are to drive change and improvement (otherwise we will continue with the same decisions and the same outcomes).  This necessitates that we place trust in data and associated analytics and have the confidence to base decisions about network performance and passenger service on them. 

Empowering network operators with the right digital tools  

Amey’s Rail Suite is designed to help network operators and train service providers achieve the balance of enhanced rail performance and high passenger satisfaction rates through service performance insights. This includes empowering our customers with tools that measure station activity, sectional runtime, speed restrictions and passenger movement data; all designed to not only streamline the analysis of rail performance data, but also enable operators to make informed decisions that help boost passenger outcomes.  

It’s also important for Amey to ensure that each client has a strong alignment between their desire for technology adoption and the required training to guarantee successful implementation and usage. Which is why we aim to work extensively with each client to bridge this gap and provide all the tools and training needed for them to instil a unified and collaborative approach across teams to embrace new ways of working. 

Boosting passenger experience should always be fundamental to driving performance improvement. Data-driven decision-making will be key to turning a complex set of problems into new opportunities that increase performance outcomes across the network, for operators and passengers alike. 

As the industry navigates unprecedented new challenges and opportunities, embracing a holistic and passenger-centric systems thinking approach to managing railway performance will be critical. Only by fully embracing data and analytics will we create the much sought after well-run network which meets the evolving needs of passengers and unlocks the full potential of our railway system. 

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