Paul Plummer writes in The Times

Yesterday, rail commuters found out how much their season tickets will rise by next year, as governments peg these increases to July’s RPI.

Given recent disruption this news was understandably met with dismay by many. Debate about the role of private companies in running a vital public service inevitably followed.

Today, I want to be clear – it is time to recast the role of the private sector in passenger rail, so that it delivers more for customers, communities, taxpayers and the economy than it can now.

Rail companies acknowledged the need for change when, last October, they came together to launch a long-term plan to improve. While progress has been made change needs to go further. Despite achieving much in the last 20 years, the status quo is no longer an option. The challenges of today are very different to those of the 1990s but they belie simple solutions.

The private sector, working with the public sector, has a vital role to play in delivering a better railway and, in the right conditions, can inspire a new generation of innovation, investment and, crucially, unity. But that requires the way we run and regulate our railways to be fundamentally overhauled.

The time is now for once-in-a-generation reform.

We don’t have all the answers but we know that passengers must be at the heart.

Barriers to innovation need knocking down so that train operators have flexibility to tailor services and respond quickly to the customers and communities they serve.

This requires change by all parties – operators, governments, Network Rail and our people. The railway must do more to utilise technology. The industry’s relationship with its people needs reshaping.

Governments must make long-term strategic decisions, stepping back from imposing well-meaning detail which ultimately stifles innovation. Long-term decision making must be insulated from short term political fixes. And we need clear accountability and leadership. This could mean a new arms-length body to work with the rail industry to implement a strategic vision set by Government.

Elsewhere, the benefits of an integrated transport system must be realised through greater devolution. Long-term decisions made locally, not in Westminster. Devolution has worked well in Merseyside, Scotland and London. Why not the North and the South West too?

Whoever owns the railway, objectives must be aligned, forging greater unity between track and train. Delivering improvements to Europe’s busiest railway tests the system to its limits and demands a public-private partnership that is better aligned.

This can only be the start though. Today’s companies want a railway that delivers more for the country without putting additional demands on taxpayers.

For years, today’s rail companies achieved this with 98p of every pound in fares going towards running and improving services, supporting a £50bn investment programme. Operating costs transformed from a £2bn deficit to a £200m surplus – freeing up taxpayer’s money. And unprecedented improvements are still to come.

However, frustration persists with day-to-day issues. The level and complexity of fares. Delay compensation. Add to this a hugely disruptive timetable change and concerns over the sustainability of some franchises and it is clearer than ever that how we run the railway must change.

All contributions to this important debate must be heard, from giving our people a greater stake in the railway’s success to using competition to give customers a better service.

Governments and political parties of all colours, passenger and business groups, and trades unions should join us and re-imagine a railway fit not just for today but for the next two decades. We must come together to establish a new model for running our railway that delivers for customers and taxpayers putting Britain on track for a more prosperous future.

Reproduced with permission from The Times

A- A A+