At Hull Trains we were proud to be awarded 92% satisfaction in the annual National Rail Passenger Survey Autumn 2019 - an impressive 10% higher than the UK average of 82%. Across the board, passenger satisfaction with rail journeys is up three percentage points year-on-year and the UK rail industry is currently undergoing one of the biggest fleet modernisation programmes in its history, which we are a part of with our new Paragon fleet.
Yet negative rail industry perceptions from customers are often fuelled by misunderstanding surrounding the way the rail network is run and confusion around the franchise system. But we can’t stand still, as demand for rail transport is expected to increase by 58% over the next 10 years.
When I explain to people that Hull Trains is an open access operator, I get one of two responses; I’m often asked ‘what is an open access operator?’ and ‘why are there not more open access operators?’ (We are one of three in the country.)
What is the difference between open access operators and franchises?
Open access operators do not receive any funding from the (government or the tax payer) to run services. We take full commercial risk, which comes with its challenges, but also plenty of scope for growth.
There is a level of security that comes with operating a franchise that we don’t have. Whilst this can be an advantage, it does come with a certain level of restrictions.
Franchised train operating companies (TOCs) have committed obligations which they have to deliver. These could look like a commitment to make operational changes such as introducing e-tickets for example or upgrading services and meeting specific performance targets.
Ultimately in most cases the Department for Transport dictates to franchised operators the fare structure, supplies the trains and defines what they have to deliver.
The benefits versus the risks
There are benefits to this; it ensures that the franchise TOCs are accountable. But, whether or not these committed obligations detract resource and attention from putting rail customers first is open to debate.
At Hull Trains we have commissioned our own £60 million fleet of bi mode trains. We only need three trains to run our current timetable and will have two back up trains available to roll out when one of the three trains need maintenance.
Reliability was an issue for us in the past, when our former 180 fleet needed additional maintenance, it had a huge impact on our services because we simply didn’t have the additional trains to replace those in repair, or a rolling stock pool to tap into.
This is an example of when the freedom of open access operations can come at a price. We were regularly asked why we couldn’t find an alternative train to use when ours were being repaired.
The lack of public understanding on the industry, coupled with the wider issue of limited stock available to use on the railway as a whole came with its challenges. But of course, people just want to get from A to B, and they rightly deserve to.
Supporting Hull’s wider growth plans
It’s important to me that we shape services which align with our region’s growth plans. If there is a market for a new service, we will certainly consider implementing it. This is a key differentiator between open access and franchise TOCs.
We are in a position to offer much more to our customers. If we don’t listen to local stakeholders and support the businesses here, then we are missing a huge opportunity.
Other plans for the future include more investment in infrastructure at Hull and the surrounding community stations, improving disability access and upgrading platforms. We want to reinvest back into the city and our people. Because without them, Hull Trains wouldn’t be here today.
Managing Director Hull Trains