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The white paper signals much-needed change for the industry. To deliver to its full potential, we must now get the detail right.

By Andy Bagnall, Director General of the RDG

After three years, two different Secretaries of State and one global pandemic, the government’s ‘Plan for Rail’ has finally been published. It is a transformational moment for the industry, moving us decisively away from the franchising system of old and towards a more integrated and passenger focused railway.

With it comes the acknowledgement that, over a long period, the system had become overly fragmented, with a spider’s web of competing players, and that central government was too closely involved in the day to day operational decisions.

The review’s answer to this is a focus on coherent leadership and strategic direction, integrating the railways under a single brand – Great British Railways. This arm’s length body will run and plan the network while providing ticketing and information, effectively bringing together the cross-industry functions of the RDG, parts of the Department for Transport and the infrastructure owner, Network Rail. The RDG advocated for such an organisation and we welcome it, but to truly meet its potential, GBR needs to mean a real shift from the current system. This means an organisation that is not only genuinely at ‘arms’ length’ from central government, but also one which provides the basis of a fair and equal relationship between its infrastructure arm and the private operators with which it contracts. Getting right the detail of that relationship – between GBR and train operators – will be key. Private companies must, for example, have fair recourse against underperforming infrastructure.

Under the proposed arrangements, GBR will control timetables, set the majority of fares and specify service quality as part of new ‘Passenger Services Contracts.’ At first sight, with GBR’s hands on these key levers, there appears to be a contradiction with the white paper’s aim of continuing to harness the best of the private sector.

Again, the relationship will be key. It is within the detail of these contracts that much of the ambition of the white paper will hang. Private operators can help deliver a step change in services that will attract passengers back – they’ve done so before, doubling passenger numbers over the last 25 years – and can again. But they will need the space to do so.

On long-distance services, the government says operators will be given ‘greater flexibility’. Unpicking what this means and how it will work in practice is going to be crucial. Where rail is in competition with other modes of transport, operators need to be able to draw on their local market knowledge to offer an improved service, implement new products for customers and provide better value for money.

As we emerge from lockdown, changes to working patterns and a burgeoning domestic travel market will necessitate private companies being given the commercial freedom to respond to changing customer needs. In keeping up with contemporary travel trends, nowhere is the need for renewal more significant than in the railway’s retail offering. The introduction of national flexi-season tickets will underpin the government’s ‘retail revolution’, including the roll out of ‘Pay As You Go’ contactless schemes and digital ticketing across the country.

There was good news too in promises to tackle shoulder-peak crowding on long distance services. However, to be truly effective, introducing more ‘Pay As You Go’ and fixing long distance fares will require a comprehensive rewriting of the fares rule book – the Ticketing and Settlement Agreement – a task not for the feint-hearted. Again, getting the detail right here will be key both so that operators can offer the modern range of fares people want and so that protections for passengers remain. We at the RDG will continue to lead calls for change so that customers get the best deal as possible when they travel in future.

The ‘Plan for Rail’ has the potential to be a real watershed moment for the rail industry and the success of any reforms will be crucial to the UK’s recovery from the pandemic. Having asked for change, train operators now look forward to working with government to get the detail right.