Change or decline: the familiar choice facing our railway

25 years ago, Britain’s railway embarked on a bold new journey. It’s time to change track once again. 

Big Plan Big Changes logoA quarter of a century ago, politicians gazing into their crystal balls as they implemented the act that privatised the railway foresaw the managed decline of a once great national asset.

Private sector involvement in the railways, they thought, would reduce the cost of running a network where passenger numbers appeared in terminal decline following decades of underinvestment.

With the benefit of hindsight, those politicians could not have been more wrong.

The rebirth of the Chiltern route, reinvigorating communities along the line. Investment in new Pendelino trains on the West Coast Main Line, transforming travel between the country’s biggest economic centres. The advent of advance fares on the day of travel enabling more people to benefit from the opportunities that affordable train travel makes possible.

Investment and innovation by the private and public sectors, with the former ensuring a clear focus on the needs of customers, has helped to double passenger numbers. This has, in turn, underpinned a transformation in the railway’s running costs, freeing up taxpayer’s cash for other vital public services.

But just as the railway was approaching a crucial junction 25 years ago, so too it is today, albeit for very different reasons. Once again, it must change radically or run the risk of decline.

After years of growth, we have one of the most congested networks in Europe, but people working on the tracks and the trains are not always pulling in the same direction. Urban centres outside London increasingly look to the railway to drive their economic growth but it is not responsive enough to their needs. Passengers want a range of fares that is quick and easy to buy, and which lets them make one simple payment for a journey involving buses, trams, trains, bicycles and, in future, autonomous vehicles. Instead, they have 55 million rail fares that cannot be unpicked from one another, let alone integrated with other forms of transport.

Undoubtedly, the time is right for the kind of big, bold change we saw 25 years ago. But the private sector has brought much to the railway since then and, in the right structure, it can deliver even more.

That is why train companies have brought forward proposals to government to overhaul the outdated fares system and make fares easier for all. It’s why I have advocated a new arms-length body to boost accountability and enable a more joined-up, long-term approach to decision-making. 

In the months ahead, we will be bringing forward further bold proposals as part of the government’s Williams Review which, with its all-encompassing scope, presents a unique opportunity to realise the kind of generational change the railway needs. As the companies running train services for the last quarter of a century, we are committed to getting Britain’s railway back on track for the next 25 years, and beyond.

By Paul Plummer

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