The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) is 20 years old this year. Writes Marc Johnson
ATOC has been a common link for train operators since the early days of privatisation, but with more and more organisations finding their voice in the industry, will ATOC continue to frame the debate?
It’s not an easy line to walk, supporting both passengers and train operators whilst retaining the overall aim – like most of the organisations covered by this series – of creating an efficiently run good-value railway.
Rail Settlement Plan
Established under the Railways Act 1993, one of ATOC’s key responsibilities is dividing up ticket revenue among franchise operators through its Rail Settlement Plan division.
For customers, ATOC has undoubtedly shaped their experience of Britain’s railway post privatisation through the creation of National Rail Enquiries (NRE).
With TOCs required by law to set up a telephone enquiry phone line for customers, ATOC took the step in 1996 to connect operators around the country under the NRE service.
Says ATOC’s chief executive Michael Roberts, ‘It started life off as a call centre operation, but now the main contact with customers is through the online services, whether that’s the website or mobile.
‘People use it because it is a highly trusted and regarded source of information about service times, fares and so on. It’s inconceivable today to think that there wouldn’t be a national source of information about fares and services and that you’d leave it all simply to individual operators.’
As well as making it easier for passengers to access vital information about services, ATOC is simplifying the tickets we use and how we buy them. Over the next six to twelve months, passengers will notice a change when they arrive at the station. The iconic orange magstripe tickets are undergoing a redesign as part of ATOC’s ongoing rethink of ticketing.
Says Michael, ‘Fares and ticketing are a big priority area for us. The government is due to publish its review of fares and ticketing in the spring. We, like others, have put our submission into that and hopefully we will continue to engage with the department to try and shape its thinking.
‘We have also been working on a redesign of the ticket just to simplify the information that’s on it. It’s a simple thing, but it’s an important thing to try and give people confidence that they know what type of ticket they’re buying.’
As well as customer-facing services, ATOC, through its Rail Staff Travel Limited scheme, controls discounted travel passes for railway employees.
ATOC is at heart a trade association seeking to influence policy and stand up for the industry when it’s brought under the critical media spotlight.
Only recently, ATOC exercised this role in response to research carried out by consumer group Which? suggesting that more than half of train operators had received passenger satisfaction scores below 50 per cent.
ATOC responded by highlighting a contrasting study by Passenger Focus, which surveyed around eight times as many people as Which?
With each fare increase, ATOC puts forward a representative to defend the industry against the backlash from a decision made in Westminster.
Says Michael, ‘We’re not trying to say to the outside world that the railways are perfect and people shouldn’t criticise us because obviously, like any other sector, we’re not perfect.
‘There are always things we can do to make things better and the improvements we’re trying to make reflect that we understand that people rightly expect a high level of service and we need to continue to respond to that.’
The structure is changing
Where ATOC was one of just a few industry groups back in the early 90s, it is now flanked by the likes of Passenger Focus and the Rail Delivery Group (RDG).
The structure is changing around ATOC. Franchising in particular is an area where Michael believes the baton has now been passed to the RDG.
‘We at ATOC are here very clearly to champion the interests of passenger rail operators so they can serve customers and deliver a better railway, but we are fundamentally here to represent their interests.
‘What the RDG brings to the party is that industry-wide context. We would argue that both while I’ve been here and before my time we have been very effective in articulating the views of the train operators in influencing the earlier debates about the shape of franchising, but the RDG gives the industry the opportunity to ensure that the views are integrated with others.
‘We see a really important role in continuing to deliver the business services we offer in a way that people are happy with and that are cost effective, but we also have a role to help support the RDG in developing ideas around the wider environment for our industry.
“We’re also very keen that the long-term vision about the role of the regulator is much clearer than is currently the case.
‘Ultimately we should be looking to have an industry which works efficiently as a market where you only need regulation in the very small circumstances where there is some genuine failure.’