A MAJOR inquiry into rail franchising could be on the way, and reports claim it is set to be the biggest shake-up of the passenger railway since privatisation began more than 20 years ago.
The Department for Transport has declined to confirm or deny reports that transport secretary Chris Grayling wants an inquiry, saying only that ‘We are absolutely committed to improving journeys and are always examining ways to improve how the railway serves passengers’.
Some sources are also suggesting that although Prime Minister Theresa May is said to be backing the transport secretary, there is no agreement within government about what should be done to reform the system.
Mr Grayling is under intense pressure after a disruptive few months which saw the collapse of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise and then the failure of new May timetables on Govia Thameslink Railway and Northern. The fallout from that has been enough to cause most of the forthcoming December timetable changes to be postponed until at least May 2019.
Disruption has also continued as the result of industrial disputes over on-train staffing, with the RMT maintaining its determined stance against any removal of a second member of staff on board trains.
Last month, a letter from DfT agency DPTAC, which is concerned with passengers with disabilities, was revealed by a Freedom of Information Act request. This was written in April 2016, when Mr Grayling was warned that the combination of driver-only operation and unstaffed stations was ‘toxic’.
Major disruption is continuing to be caused by industrial action on Northern and South Western Railway over DOO disputes, but it appears that Merseytravel and Merseyrail have retreated from their previous position by agreeing that all trains on Merseyrail will continue to carry a second staff member when the present fleet is replaced, two or three years from now.
More recently, Mr Grayling has triggered another storm by suggesting that if rail fares are to be increased by the lower Consumer Prices Index in future, rather than the discredited Retail Prices Index, then railway wage increases should also be based on CPI.
Franchising is struggling in other ways too. The franchising timetable continues to run behind schedule, delaying the renewal of franchises such as East Midlands, where a new contract should have begun in July. Southeastern, too, seems likely to be delayed.
There is also continuing pressure on the government from external sources.
The first chief executive of Network Rail has dismissed the present system of rail franchising as ‘bust’.
Speaking in July in the wake of the Virgin Trains East Coast failure Sir John Armitt, who now chairs the National Infrastructure Commission, said: “The rail franchise companies, as we've seen, have to take very significant revenue risk, and that's got them into trouble, because the government will always go for the most optimistic forecast of revenue. That model, I think, is bust, and it needs to be reviewed, and a more appropriate sharing of risk on the railway needs to take its place."
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald has dismissed any attempts to simply 'tinker' with the present system. “Long suffering rail passengers don’t need a review to explain to them that the franchising system is broken beyond repair. I can tell the Prime Minister now that no amount of tinkering will change the fact that rail franchising has failed, does not deliver and never will," he said.
He continued: “What we’ve heard just proves that this Government is blind to the best solution for improving the UK’s railway, and the one that the public backs: Labour’s policy of public ownership.”
RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: "You don't need a body scanner to work out that this is just a transparent attempt by the Tories to try and kick the privatised chaos on Britain's train franchises into the long grass for a year. It won't work as it's clearly a desperate stunt by a Government clutching at straws which is ideologically opposed to the British people owning and running their railways.
"The only solution to the current rail franchise shambles is an end to private greed and a return to public ownership. RMT will be stepping up the fight to kick the spivs off the tracks."
The Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators and Network Rail, has yet to comment.