What the Williams-Shapps review means for the future of UK rail travel

Josh Collier, head of proposition for rail and ground transport, Agiito

Josh Collier, head of proposition for rail and ground transport, Agiito

The long-awaited Williams-Shapps review, finally published early this summer, offers an interesting look into the future of the UK’s rail industry which, pleasingly, includes some positives that will benefit passengers.

The rail industry’s ticketing structure has long been criticised for being overly complex and unsuited to the requirements of modern commuters and business travellers. Therefore, the removal of off-peak cliff-edge pricing and the addition of flexible season tickets, both key inclusions in the report, are huge steps forward.

In fact, the latter was probably the headline announcement and delivers the most immediate benefit to travellers. Flexible season tickets, now in operation, allow passengers to travel on a designated route on any eight days in a 28-day period, creating a new and more cost-effective product aimed at those travelling between two stations on average two days a week.

Season ticket reform was essential to support flexible working patterns that have accelerated as a result of the pandemic. They’ve been crying out for an overhaul for some time, with ticket sales declining long before the pandemic as home working and flexible working became increasingly more popular.

Although it is too early to really understand what future developments will look like at this stage, there is potential for Pay-as-you-Go-style ticketing outside of the London region across shorter routes.

The Transport for London model (Oyster cards and Contactless payments) is one about which the industry has harboured hopes for a long time. Trials of this technology on the wider National Rail network have come and gone without anything sticking to date, but this will be a positive step when developed. It will create a fares system that is easier to understand and is more aligned to travellers’ needs.

I wouldn’t expect too much to change in terms of the core ticket types, but expect to see more promotional activity and less disparity of fare pricing between peak and off-peak trains, which has been a bugbear of both individuals and their employers for so long.

I expect to see greater innovation across several touchpoints of the journey, with digital front-and-centre of that. This won’t just mean having a digital ticket on your phone (finally, it looks as though paper tickets may become a thing of the past!), but the ability to receive live journey updates, Delay/Repay automation, and platform changes will become commonplace as the technology is now there to deliver this. 

The review also talks about end-to-end journey planning (not just including rail), ‘find my seat’ features and personalised travel offers which will significantly improve the rail traveller experience.

The rail industry recognises it needs to win back passengers after the pandemic and the review incorporates what trends look like moving forward. With rail operators expected to have more commercial freedom to set fares, this could have a very positive impact for buyers.

With a better user experience, including other modes of transport and perhaps the ability to add ancillary products at the time of booking, travel policies may need to be reviewed to understand what can and can’t be included as standard when travelling for business.

As rail makes up only one per cent of all transport emissions, this gives buyers a greater incentive to promote rail over other types of travel. As new key infrastructure projects are given the green light (HS2 and the Transpennine route upgrade, for example) it creates a more reliable, cost-effective and greener railway that could see rail adopted as the mandated travel mode of choice.

As we now begin to re-open society once more, rail has an integral role to play in getting the country back moving and it’s fantastic to see the commitment to key infrastructure projects to make our railways greener, as well as investment in fleet and line equipment to reduce journey times which in turn will help the railways prosper.

We hope by having one single organisation responsible across all areas in the newly named Great British Railways, it will help remove some of the challenges that are in place today and to offer the best possible experience with travellers’ needs at the forefront. However, it’s important that Great British Railways put the necessary structures in place to achieve a simpler experience for travellers, train operators and retailers alike, and to ensure parity is achieved throughout.