Proposed reforms put the railway on track to help Britain succeed
The future of Britain’s railway is a debate which, for people in the industry, has sometimes felt almost as hotly contested as Brexit. On both sides, emotions run high, opinions are polarised and cold, hard facts are the collateral damage.
Undoubtedly, rail companies have not always got everything right and people feel intense frustration when the service doesn’t deliver for them. Too often in recent years, that has been the case as how the railway is structured has reached the limits of what it can deliver.
Just as 25 years ago when John Major’s government took a pragmatic approach to rail, ushering in a new era of investment and innovation, the time is right for a once-in-a-generation upgrade to the railway system. The status quo cannot remain.
With millions more passengers travelling and thousands more trains on the tracks every day, the network is under the kind of pressure that was never foreseen when today’s structure was introduced.
Finding the solutions to deliver the railway Britain needs over the next two decades requires dispassionate analysis and looking beyond politics.
As the economic arteries of our towns and cities and a service relied upon by people and businesses nationwide, the railway is too important for anything else.
That is why today, rail companies are putting forward to the government’s Rail Review a radical set of proposals. An alternative to the current system of franchising.
These proposals are based on months of conversations with passengers, businesses and communities up and down the country. They draw on the collective wisdom of men and women with decades of experience running the railway. They utilise analysis of railways around the world.
The result is a long-term plan which we believe will deliver real, lasting change - the greater accountability and better value for money people expect and deserve. A new approach designed around the needs of passengers, communities and the businesses who depend on rail freight to trade.
In some of our major towns and cities, where commuters depend on the railway every day, there would be democratically accountable, Transport for London-style single-branded services, with an integrated transport body given greater control.
On long distance routes where there is enough demand to underpin genuine competition multiple operators would compete for passengers’ business. Whether it is quicker more comfortable journeys or faster Wi-Fi, demand would shape the market - with passengers able to vote with their feet by changing to a different operator.
On other routes, tough targets combined with clear incentives would be introduced for companies to deliver the outcomes their customers want, replacing today’s tightly specified inputs-based contracts. This would give operators the freedom to innovate to improve, while only rewarding them for good performance.
A new national body, independent of government, would act as the glue binding the whole system together, holding the industry to account and ensuring the people running the tracks and the trains are all pulling in the same direction for the customers they serve.
And crucially, a full reformed fares system with decades old regulation updated would make ticket buying easier for all and enable a best fare guarantee. The regular commuter simply tapping in and out with the confidence of a price cap. The business person buying an intercity ticket on their smartphone on route to the station. The occasional traveller who today is bamboozled by the range of fares on offer presented instead with straightforward choices.
All told, this is an approach designed to deliver what the country expects - a world class railway. Based on what will work, not ideology.
It responds to the reality that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
It strikes the right balance of public sector specification where the power of the market isn’t strong enough, and real competition and innovation where people really can exercise a choice.
It is a plan for every part of Britain. So, while we await the outcomes of the government’s Rail Review, we will be taking our plans around the country to understand how the building blocks of a new system can be arranged to maximise the benefits the railway brings to each individual local area. The country needs change and there is no time to waste.
Paul Plummer, Chief Executive, Rail Delivery Group