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28 May 2020 6 min read

The future of rail: It’s in the public’s hands

How has commuting changed for you since lockdown? Gone are the days of being squashed into a carriage like a sardine in business dress, but there are changes ahead.

Whilst lockdown kept us in with our box sets and sourdough loaves, the rail sector has still been hard at work, and whether it’s HS2 or local transport, rail operators are still proceeding with changes to lines, timetables and services.  Major infrastructure projects are still underway, but what has changed is the public perception around their involvement in projects that shape their lives, and the changes that will happen to help us live in our new normal.

A recent ICE report, The use of infrastructure systems – Insights into the new normal  which has been published alongside a Green Paper consultation exploring the public’s desire for major infrastructure projects in a post Covid-19 world, showed that there is a public  “demand for transport provision that continues social distancing measures and is designed specifically to prevent the spread of disease.”

In a pre-vaccine phase of lockdown lifting, now is the time when rail operators need to listen like they have never listened before.

The controversy surrounding Barnard Castle has shown that there is a real need to get the public onside, whatever the message, and we predict that as 2020 rolls on and 2021 comes onto the horizon, more and more rail operators will be engaging with their stakeholders much earlier on, and in a much broader fashion.

ICE policy director Chris Richards spoke around his recent report: “It’s important we listen to the public and adapt our infrastructure systems to support society achieve post-Covid outcomes.”

So how can rail companies reach more people and get better outcomes?

A win-win would be the rail operators offering a safe, reliable service, with commuters content to travel and in agreement around changes.  This is a utopia, but it starts with getting everyone to have their say.

If you have ever had a changed route or timetable switch and wondered ‘why wasn’t I consulted’ – chances are, you weren’t in the right place at the right time.  Rail operators need to consult with the public and they do this in a variety of ways, everything from social media through to email newsletters, website updates and town hall and (at present) virtual meetings.

Stakeholder engagement has a far greater role to play than ever before and it’s clear that since COVID-19 occurred, there is a far greater appetite to have access to information and rail operators are embracing this. Qualitative surveys pull out insights from each response, stakeholder management software can help find everyone in a local area who may be affected by a change and communicating with them on their own terms.  At the same time, social media listening can also help rail operators see what people’s concerns are.

Each round of stakeholder consultation could last months, with every single concern and issue needing to be logged, addressed and ideally, solved and for rail operators, stakeholders include individuals (for example passengers or lineside neighbours), customers (and owning groups), freight end users, national funders, local funding bodies, investors, passenger representative bodies, companies that form their supply chain, regulatory authorities and local government agencies and authorities.

That’s a broad church.

If you are interested in being consulted on changes, now is the time to take matters into your own hands.

Stakeholder engagement managers look for people who are, unsurprisingly, engaged and interested in feeding back on changes.  Register on rail operator news sites and ask to receive email updates.

You may be surprised to find that you can even reply directly to an email newsletter and enter a two-way conversation with a real human at the other end.

 Paul Rivers, Director of Tractivity who create stakeholder management software explains.

“The post-Covid changes will span every sector, but for rail, we are expecting to see a real step change in the level and breadth of engagement rail operators are making and a huge increase in how much interest there is in their campaign plans, with the public entering dialogue much more freely.  We have already seen an increase through lockdown in public interest in consultations- survey engagement has gone up, one on one emails have increased and open rates and website traffic is all through the roof.  It seems that the public are more aware than ever that they have the ability to change and influence projects around them.”

“For the rail sector, I would recommend that the operators who are engaging take action quickly.  The uncertainty we are all experiencing naturally leads people to want to take back control and keeping people on side should be key.  Overall, whilst the interest in projects has been heartening, it seems now is the ideal time for rail operators and stakeholders to work together to make achieve a common goal.”

Many businesses such as Network Rail and ScotRail are using systems like Tractivity, Stakeholder Management Software to ensure that every piece of stakeholder communication goes further than ever.