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The last twenty years that changed the train

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While there is still some agitations claiming for a utopian back to the past, we can now to look at the past twenty years that have changed the train: change of service to the public, change of society, leadership of the industry and new players in the field have undeniably moved the lines. Let’s see that in more detail.

Mutation of the service to the public
In the 80s, a questioning appeared on the opportunity to know if we could not manage the public matters by avoiding the heaviness and rigidities of the administration. Most of the national companies such as the Post Office, the “Telephone” and the public railway undertakings were destined to mutate towards a more entrepreneurial management, with management contract and accounting to the latest international standards. In all the European countries in the 90s, a transformation of these administrations were made towards public law companies, with in some case participations of other shareholders. This will result in the emergence of a new rhetoric foreign to the culture of the public service: project, contract, call for tenders, evaluation, quality approach, setting quantitative and qualitative objectives, reduction of global subsidies, competition , contracting, etc. While the task was more or less easy with the Telecom sector and, to a lesser extent, with the National Posts (DHL, TNT …), the railways have shown greater resistance to change.

In twenty years, several national parliaments have amended their legislation to introduce the end of the rail monopoly, a progressive change of special social regimes, the introduction of public service delegation which offers of contracts open to third parties and a clear delimitation of publics funds by dedicated State-Operator contracts for public transport. Part of Europe has moved to this policy with more or less vigor according to national political cultures and ideological resistance. In regional traffic, the delegation of public service on local networks is now a well-engaged policy in some countries that promote local and regional autonomy, with a framework by law. In some regions, it is the local government who has taken over its trains and put an end to the policy of closing the local lines, or sometimes by re-opening sections stripped by the national railway incumbent. The sectors where essential social or national considerations no longer predominate – in the freight sector and main line train services – have been removed from the public service and have a real autonomy to manage their services, equipments and recruitment, whatever the main shareholder. It was unthinkable twenty years ago.

Mutation of society
We do not speak about the debate of contemporary society, which is the subject of so much commentary and requires so many nuances in its interpretation. We observe that since over thirty years, contemporary societies rely on an individualistic anthropology that values ​​the individual and the relationship between oneself. The times of today are also characterized by a dynamic of permanent transformation (for example Telecoms), which is the opposite of the stability and heaviness of the administration. Unlimited access to information via digital channels today maintains an uninterrupted stream of comparisons and tactics to travel cheaper and otherwise, which has greatly hinders the railway sector. The major consequence of this change was the arrival of marketing within the railway. Today, the pricing promotes the individual rather than the group, the age rather than the veteran of second worldwar (actually we are in 2017, the idea of veteran of second worldwar is still relevant?). Clearly, we went from the docile user to the volatile customer, who totally changed the relationship between the railways and its customers.

In the private sector, customer satisfaction is a significant target and is the focus of ongoing efforts to improve the service. The public service is still lagging, but there are some qualitative improvements, such as the Nightjet service from the Austrian state-owned company ÖBB or the high-speed train service from Trenitalia, which has to compete against its competitor NTV-Italo. What added value for the citizen? It’s a matter of culture and personal impressions. Today, we speak of “customer experience”, in other words, the relationship with the company, live or via a computer, and the complete progress of the purchase and travel in the best conditions. This reality has penetrated the historic railways and has changing the horizon in twenty years. We can see that with more attractive websites and a better access to information. Independent companies like Thalys, Thello, NTV or Eurostar offer a range of visible and simple prices at a glance. The ticket can now print at home on A4 paper or be sent on smartphone with a QR Code. All of this were impossible twenty years ago.

Private industry leadership
This is another mutation, more strategic. In the past, the domestic railway industry was the only subcontractor of the national railway. The national administrations drew up the plans themselves, which were signed by the minister and the ministry had commissioned the rolling stock at the national price. So, each state had their closed circuit with its own technical standards, away from the world. But changes have been made within the new laws on tenders : from now cables, bolts, steel, trains and all the technical railway equipment must be bought with the best price, on the industrial market, in a european field, and not made to measure. This is the end of the “national subcontractor for ever”. For some railway administrations, the consequences was that they were stripped progressively of their technical prerogatives! Industrial companies released from the protectionism of the neighboring countries, then undertook a vast transformation of their industrial scheme in the 1990s to expand their market  in all of Europe and boost their sales.

To achieve this, the transformation was radical: the construction of trains, trams and subways is now made by “platform”. Which means that a factory is a product, when the same product is made with a range of different alternatives (color, seat, lenght…). It’s like the automotive industry: a basic vehicle and charged alternatives. This industrialization by standard product means that a single European factory is enough to study and to build only one kind of locomotive and to cover a single market in Europe. And that was also still unthinkable in the early 90s.

In twenty years, the rail industry has clearly taken the lead of the research by studying the railway products itself to offer one product to the widest possible number of railway companies, which reduced the costs of production. This landscape has made the rail industry more attractive for investors and has make easier the access to credit, with the appearance of a few big giants which have the ability to offer a full range of products in a single catalog. These include the Bombardier TRAXX locomotive only built in the Kassel factory (DE) or the Siemens Vectron locomotive built in Munich-Allach (DE). Alstom builds its commuter trains on the sole site of Savigliano (IT), and its regional trains in Salzgitter (DE) and Reichshoffen (FR). Bombardier builds its high-speed train at Vado Ligure (IT) while Hitachi Rail has built its only assembly plant at Newton Aycliffe in Great Britain. Each constructor exhibits its new rolling stock at major shows, such as InnoTrans in Berlin, which has only existed since 1996, providing further proof of the vitality of the railway industry, which was not very active twenty-five years ago.

But the industry could not have grown if there were only incumbant railway companies as sole customers. It is indeed the opening of the market to new entrants that has boosted the railway market, with orders sometimes impressive and others with smaller quantities, but it’s still the same locomotive. They is customized “à la carte” according the requierementsof the customers. For example, you have need a locomotive only for Netherlands / Germany / Poland or a locomotive for Germany / Austria / Italy. This industrial performance, which no historical company was able to do because they were not interested in that, blew up a market which was still so sluggish twenty years ago. This has created more highly skilled jobs than the losses of employment incurred with the restructuring of the industry.

This industrial recomposition goes hand in hand with a standardization of approval procedures, now under the auspices of ERA, an railway european agency that did not exist twenty years ago either… Without this, the success of the Bombardier’s TRAXX, for more than 2,000 standardized and homologated locomotives sold from Helsinki to Lisbon, could never have happened. As there will be a time where all transport companies will have their full new rolling stock, the supposed drop of purchase volumes is already encouraging the sector to anticipate by boosting theirs customer service, particularly through sales contracts, leasing & maintenance. This activity was precisely one of the activities of the historic railways. Playing a role in the maintenance, it was still unthinkable twenty years ago …

New players on the market
This is probably the most visible face of railway transformation. The introduction of new entrants vary greatly according the politics culture of each land, but is now well anchored in the railway landscape, especially at the level of the freight sector since the 2000s, where the competition is not longer subject to contestation.

But during this time, the low-cost airliners showed that you could travel quickly and with good conditions for few money. Suddenly the railways became too expensive for many people. Thus, it was the aviation that became the transport of the poors and the train became a transport … for the rich people ! It will be to wait until 2012 to see appearing the first railway private companies on the main line segment (Thello, WESTBahn, NTV-Italo, RegioJet, LeoExpress …). Former monopolies like Eurostar or Thalys were transfered to independent companies for a better managment. Four countries offer rail in open access, ie several companies on one railway line, such as in aviation: the Czech Republic, Austria, Italy and, more modestly, Sweden. Which added value for the citizen? The competition provides a more readable and accessible offer, with sometimes lower rates and more promotions than in the time of the national monopoly.

Transregio, from the french enterprise Transdev, provides trains services between Cologne et Coblence under contract. Emu Desiro from Siemens (picture Transregio)

Except in Great Britain, quite a few Member States have devised political legislation favorable to the management of local lines under contract by third parties, whether private or not. In hindsight, we can say that these are subsidiaries of historic companies that meet – and win – many European tenders. This allows them to expand their business beyond national borders, which was unthinkable twenty years ago. Which added value for the citizen? Maybe not really at the price level, but certainly at the service level: creation of regional transport authorities mixing the bus and the train, lines passed from four to fifteen or more trains per day , weekend service, rolling stock often new (except in Great Britain… but this is changing) and many small stations renovated and serviced, sometimes even created or re-opened. This local coverage has rubbed off on some municipalities crossed, which financed out of the railway field a bicycle network and more attractive roads or parking access that were still wasteland less than twenty years ago…

The railway employment
It is decreasing, as in many economic sectors. Because of a recession of the public service? Not really, but it is true that the closures of stations, tickets offices, industrial yards and locals lines helped to melt staff numbers, but that does not explain everything. There are also and especially the great waves of recruitment of the 1970s that have suddenly retired thousands of railway workers in the early 2010s. In addition, the rise of technologies has induced a lower need for personnel, as for example the computerized signal boxes that cover much larger areas, making small signal boxes useless. Some jobs are disappearing with societal changes: luggages with built-in rollerboards and lifts to the station platform have replaced all baggage handler. Mail and parcels are no longer transported by passenger trains because of the new logisitic organization of the Post Office and the automated sorting …

(picture CFF/SBB)

Over the last twenty years, a greater professionalization of staff has taken place: the myth of the little apprentice who starts at 16 year old in a filthy deposit is a picture of the past, for movies of Ken Loach. Henceforth, the railroad is no longer a refuge for the poorly qualified proletarian or for the son of the humble farmer (who seeks social climbing). It is now more qualified technicians, electricians, welders, accountants, computer scientists, lawyers or engineers who make up the railway staff. To become a driver of train is not so easy than yesterday. The skills to the job have fortunately been revised upward in line with the expectations and the requierments of today, in particulary because railways are today more electrified and because there exist many ISO standards. Nevertheless, in recent times, the lack of train drivers is also sorely lacking in some companies in Europe.

Conclusion ?
This article is an idyllic picture? No, but it has been shown that the railway is always a reflection of its users. If these evolve, the rail is forced to evolve. Some ideological forces would like to believe that the past of the railways is the future of the railways, especially towards the generation Z who did not know the railroad of old. The railway ecosystem was much slower to moult than other public sectors like post and telecom, but the new railway is now launched.

A lot of things that live today were still impossible to implement twenty years ago. Changes in the legislative landscape are important : they were necessary. Sociologists will probably regret the change of the status from “the user” to “the customer”, but this is a societal development with which the railways can only to adapt. These twenty years of change in the railway landscape have shown what could be done and what was not optimal to undertake. Night trains must search for viable new business models. Nightjet appears to be on the right track. Obtaining British-style franchises, without a social pricing policy, is also something to review.

Adjustments will still be needed at all levels, including legislative regulations. Clarifications still need to be made where there are persistent failures on the accountability of each parties. Thus, in 2018, the sharing of the deficit of a cross-border service between two states remains a misery, while calls for modal shift are heard everywhere.

These last years have shown a reality: the horizon have moved everywhere, in the attitudes, in the heads and in the management of the old railway administrations. This is what was asked by the citizen, first donor and user of the railway public service …

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L’auteur de ce blog


Frédéric de Kemmeter
Analyste ferroviaire & mobilité - Secrétaire de Global Rail Network. Le rail sans tabous ni langue de bois. J'aime les choses bien réfléchies. Le ferroviaire, ce n'est pas faire de l'activisme, c'est faire le tour de la question à 360°. C'est la ligne de conduite de ce blog.
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