Virgin calls for all-reserved ‘airline style’ railways

VIRGIN has unveiled proposals for making intercity trains all-reserved, as Eurostar is now.

The plan, which has been submitted to the railway review being led by Keith Williams for the Department for Transport, would end the concept of a ‘walk on’ railway as far as longer distance travel was concerned.

Passengers would need to book specific seats on specific trains for all types of intercity travel. At the moment, this restriction applies only to heavily-discounted Advance tickets

The RMT has condemned the idea, saying it would lead to ‘total chaos’.

Virgin said its reforms would mean no more standing passengers in normal circumstances, because when a train was fully booked no more tickets would be available. There would also be an end to peak and off-peak fares as such, because each seat would be offered at rates which could change as the train concerned became busier, as seats on planes do now.

The proposals, entitled ‘Reimagining the railway’, also change the way paths are allocated for each franchise. 

Long-distance operators would compete for slots which they would own indefinitely, while a ’modified, devolved and longer-term franchise system’ would be introduced for short distance commuter routes. These would be ’integrated with devolved infrastructure management’ and involve local government.

Other benefits, according to Virgin, would include ‘a more positive development environment’ for stations, meaning that operators not limited by a franchise expiry date would be more willing to invest in them.

The reforms would also include the creation of ‘a single independent and strategic regulator’.

Virgin Group senior partner Patrick McCall said the Williams Review offered a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity.

He continued: ‘This submission was written before the recent Government decision to disqualify our bid for the West Coast Partnership. However, we believe the recommendations are more pertinent than ever given this news. Keith Williams has said that franchising cannot continue as it is now, and it is clear we need systemic industry reform which is driven by principles and a whole-system redesign. Indeed, it is highly questionable whether any franchises can be let sensibly, or robustly, as things stand.

‘This will not be an easy fix. Every option will have downsides and there will be some difficult decisions to be made. But there should be no dogmatic fixation on models or ownership. Instead, we must develop a system which optimises the benefits for passengers, taxpayers and communities and which enables train companies to evolve as the world evolves around them. We must be both visionary and pragmatic.’

RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: ‘What Virgin are proposing is a deregulated free for all where private train operators slug it out on the most lucrative routes on a slot by slot basis. It would lead to total chaos with passengers trapped in a transport nightmare of escalating fares where prices rise by the minute according to availability.

‘Virgin are actually proposing a version of the current broken rail franchising model pumped up on steroids, when what is really needed is an end to this nonsense and public ownership of our railways.’

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