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British Rail is back… almost: Biggest shake-up of train network for three decades

A new public body to oversee key areas of the railways will be set up as part of the biggest overhaul of the industry since privatisation almost three decades ago.

Great British Railways (GBR) will replace Network Rail to operate 20,000 miles of track, signals and tunnels.

And under plans revealed in a White Paper today, it will have additional powers to set most fares and timetables, sell tickets and issue contracts to private firms to run the trains themselves. 

Breaking with Tory policy introduced under John Major in 1993, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said passengers had been failed by ‘years of fragmentation, confusion and over-complication’.

He added: ‘That complicated and broken system ends today.’

The reforms include flexible season tickets that will go on sale next month, allowing commuters to travel for eight days over a 28-day periods – or two trips a week in a month. This reflects changing work patterns, with many set to continue working from home, at least partly, after the pandemic.

‘For many, the idea of travelling five days a week to the office is fast becoming a relic of the past,’ Mr Shapps said.

Breaking with Tory policy introduced under John Major in 1993, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said passengers had been failed by ‘years of fragmentation, confusion and over-complication’

The new tickets will be significantly cheaper than traditional seven-day season tickets and ministers hope they will entice more back on to the network.

Contactless pay-as-you-go train travel, such as London’s Oyster system, will also eventually be introduced in all towns and cities under the proposals.

Network Rail – a public body whose responsibilities will be replaced gradually by GBR – merely owns and maintains rail infrastructure.

GBR will do all this and more. Its other powers will include setting timetables, which are currently suggested by train companies. It will also be able to set the majority of fares, currently managed by the Department for Transport.

GBR will sell all tickets, too – meaning it will receive fare revenues directly. It will pay operators depending on performance targets.

The current franchise model will be replaced with ‘concession’ agreements, under which operators receive a fixed fee for running services rather than relying on ticket sales to make money. Firms will not get the full fee if they fail to run services on time or operate trains with dirty carriages. Ministers hope the threat of financial penalties will result in better services.

Some of the new passenger service contracts will be introduced this year but most will not be in place until the end of 2022.

Boris Johnson said of the plans: ‘I am a great believer in rail but for too long passengers have not had the level of service they deserve.

‘By creating Great British Railways and investing in the future of the network, this Government will deliver a rail system the country can be proud of.’ The White Paper is based on a review by Keith Williams, the former British Airways boss and Royal Mail’s non-executive chairman. Due to be published in autumn 2019, it was delayed first by that year’s general election, and then the coronavirus crisis.

'For many, the idea of travelling five days a week to the office is fast becoming a relic of the past,' Mr Shapps said

‘For many, the idea of travelling five days a week to the office is fast becoming a relic of the past,’ Mr Shapps said

The review was ordered in 2018 after the introduction of new rail schedules led to the meltdown of services that May.

An inquiry blamed several factors for the fiasco, including Network Rail not completing maintenance and infrastructure projects on time, poor preparation by rail firms and a lack of meaningful oversight by the Department for Transport.

British Rail was privatised in 1993, handing responsibility for infrastructure projects to Railtrack and then Network Rail. The running of services was passed to multiple companies that bid for contracts.

Although private companies will continue to run trains, today’s White Paper aims to bring more elements of running the network back under one organisation.

Mr Williams said: ‘Our plan is built around the passenger, with new contracts which prioritise excellent performance and better services, better- value fares and creating clear leadership and real accountability when things go wrong.’ Rail franchises effectively ended when the Government bailed out the railways at the start of the pandemic at a cost of £10billion. At present, operators receive a fee in return for running a certain level of services – much like the model in today’s White Paper.

Contactless pay-as-you-go train travel, such as London's Oyster system, will also eventually be introduced in all towns and cities under the proposals

Contactless pay-as-you-go train travel, such as London’s Oyster system, will also eventually be introduced in all towns and cities under the proposals

The proposals will not require new legislation, meaning they can be implemented from next month.

Anthony Smith, of the independent watchdog Transport Focus, said: ‘This is a positive step towards much-needed reform of how rail tickets are sold. We need tickets that are more likely to match how we might live and travel in future.’

Andy Bagnall, of the Rail Delivery Group representing train operators, said: ‘These proposals can deliver the biggest changes in a generation.

‘Getting the detail right will be crucial to ensuring that the White Paper fulfils its potential to improve journeys, offer independent oversight and clear accountability, and create a new set of fares which are simpler and more value for money.’

However, the leader of the RMT union Mick Lynch said the plans would mean ‘the taxpayer carries all the risk while the train companies carry out bags of cash’.

Manuel Cortes, of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association, said taxpayers’ money would still ‘leak out of our industry in the form of dividend payments for greedy shareholders’.

Jim McMahon, Labour’s transport spokesman, said: ‘This report raises more questions than it answers.’

ROSS CLARK: This is just the ticket… if it doesn’t hit union buffers

By Ross Clark for the Daily Mail  

Appropriately enough, there has been a long delay to the Government’s White Paper on the future of the rail industry. It is 18 months late, in fact – it was supposed to be published when the leaves were still fresh on the line in Autumn 2019. But now it has finally squealed its way on to the platform, was it worth waiting for?

Loftily, it declares that ‘a quarter century of fragmentation on the railways will end’ – which means that John Major’s botched privatisation has been scorned. But does that mean that the unions, and the Left in general, have won the day and the railways will be renationalised?

Not quite. The paper proposes that a new public body, Great British Railways, be created to own the infrastructure, to set the fares and timetables and to collect the fares. But the trains and the staff? They will still be in private hands.

The model that the Government wants to create, in fact, already exists in London, where the Overground is run by Arriva, a company owned by Deutsche Bahn, the German state rail company.

You would have to be a bit of a trainspotting nerd to know this – because the Overground is fully integrated into the TfL network, with the public body setting fares and timetables. The trains are even branded with the London Transport symbol rather than the Arriva logo. The new plans should eliminate the most offensive aspects of the current system. Private companies will no longer be able ruthlessly to exploit local monopolies to jack up fares to the point where the standard single fare from London to Manchester is an absurd £184.70.

RMT, Rail, Maritime and Transport Union workers protest outside Waterloo Station as a Rail and transport strike is set to begin, in London, Monday, Dec. 2, 2019

RMT, Rail, Maritime and Transport Union workers protest outside Waterloo Station as a Rail and transport strike is set to begin, in London, Monday, Dec. 2, 2019

Tickets should be fully interchangeable between services; no longer will you be able to get caught out, say, with a Great Northern ticket on an East Coast train. Trains might once again hang on for a couple of minutes so that passengers on a delayed train can make a connection.

Unions will still bleat that the railways can only function with the common ownership of the trains – but how many passengers really care who owns them or pays the driver’s wages?

All that said, however, there is a danger that we could lose some of the advantages that privatisation brought. As someone who worked briefly for British Rail in the 1980s, I’m sorry, but I don’t romanticise it. I remember its ‘can’t do’ attitude from the sharp end.

Management saw its role as running down the railway system in the least painful way possible. Don’t forget, it was British Rail that carried out the Beeching cuts when more than 3,000 miles of railway were closed in the 1960s – under a Labour government at that.

My concern is whether a state-run body will have the entrepreneurial spirit that’s needed for the business to prosper while looking after passengers

My concern is whether a state-run body will have the entrepreneurial spirit that’s needed for the business to prosper while looking after passengers

The state monolith carried on trying to close lines throughout the 1970s and 1980s, when we very nearly lost the Settle to Carlisle line. 

And when a train service in Devon became overcrowded a very British Rail solution was enacted: several stops were cut out so that people couldn’t get on. Problem solved –sort of. 

It was when privatisation took place that this changed. Instead of seeing passengers as an inconvenience, private companies saw them as their lifeblood. 

Cheap advance tickets attracted a whole new clientele – although some disgusting practices, such as fining people hundreds of pounds if they accidentally got on the wrong train, put many off again.

Passenger numbers, which had steadily fallen since the 1940s, began to grow – to the extent that in 2018/19 some 1.76 billion passenger journeys were made, double the number in the last year of British Rail.

My concern is whether a state-run body will have the entrepreneurial spirit that’s needed for the business to prosper while looking after passengers.

The Government says it wants to open more stations and lines, but it will be too easy not to bother when there is no profit incentive to do this.

The Government says it wants to open more stations and lines, but it will be too easy not to bother when there is no profit incentive to do this

The Government says it wants to open more stations and lines, but it will be too easy not to bother when there is no profit incentive to do this

What is vital is that the system retains the ‘open access’ arrangements – which have existed throughout the era of privatisation – that allow private companies to put in a bid to run entirely new services where they spot a hole in the market. 

It was open access, for instance, which enabled the Hull Trains company to reinstate direct services from London to the East Riding of Yorkshire, and Grand Central to do the same for London to Sunderland.

If the Government can manage to rationalise the existing railway network using a single ticketing system without rip-off fares, and still leave room for private operators to develop new routes and services, it would go a long way to resolving the many problems that were created by John Major in his rush to emulate Margaret Thatcher’s successful privatisations.

Just maybe this will turn out to be a White Paper with wheels.


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