Radical reforms lay foundation for ‘modern, green railway’

► Concessions will replace franchises
► New industry body to absorb Network Rail
► Fares shakeup includes part time seasons
► White Paper presented to Parliament

Updated 20 May, 16.15

THE long-delayed reform of the railways has begun, with confirmation from the Department for Transport that franchises will be replaced by concessions, and control will be given to a new public body to be called Great British Railways.

The details, which have been worked out by former British Airways CEO Keith Williams and transport secretary Grant Shapps, were presented to Parliament in the form of a White Paper on Thursday. 

Network Rail and its infrastructure responsibilities will become part of GBR, which will collect revenues from fares, manage the concessions and also decide most fares and timetables. The first two-year National Rail Contracts have been annunced, while Community Rail Partnerships could also become operators for the first time.

GBR will lead a restructuring of fares, including new flexible season tickets and a significant development of more convenient Pay As You Go, contactless and digital ticketing on smartphones. A single compensation scheme for operators in England is intended to provide a simple system so that passengers can retrieve information and apply for refunds.

It appears to be the end of the line for the present National Rail Enquiries website. This will be replaced by an online service run by GBR, which will provide train information and sell tickets.

Neither is it clear what part might be played in future by the Rail Delivery Group. However, RDG director general Andy Bagnall said: ‘Train companies have long called for many of the reforms in this white paper and these proposals can deliver the biggest changes in a generation.

‘Getting the detail right will be crucial to ensuring that the white paper fulfils its potential to improve journeys, offer independent oversight and clear accountability, and create a new set of fares which are simpler and more value for money.

‘For our passengers, we are ambitious to move quickly and work with government so that we can attract people back on to trains with better services and maximise the railway’s contribution to the recovery.’

The Department for Transport said the reforms would support a ‘financially sustainable’ railway as the country recovers from Covid-19. New contracts will be ‘focused on punctuality and improved efficiency’ making it easier and cheaper to plan maintenance, renewals and upgrades.

The DfT has also moved to quash any suggestions that the changes amount to renationalisation, saying that ‘there will remain a substantial, and often greater role, for the private sector’.

It continued: ‘The new Passenger Service Contracts will include strong incentives for operators to run high-quality services and increase passenger numbers. They will not be one-size-fits-all: as demand recovers, operators on some routes, particularly long-distance, will have more commercial freedom. Affordable walk-on fares and season ticket prices will be protected.’

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: ‘I am a great believer in rail, but for too long passengers have not had the level of service they deserve.

‘By creating Great British Railways, and investing in the future of the network, this government will deliver a rail system the country can be proud of.’

Transport secretary Grant Shapps added: ‘Our railways were born and built to serve this country, to forge stronger connections between our communities and provide people with an affordable, reliable and rapid service. Years of fragmentation, confusion and over-complication has seen that vision fade, and passengers failed. That complicated and broken system ends today.

‘The pandemic has seen the Government take unprecedented steps to protect services and jobs. It’s now time to kickstart reforms that give the railways solid and stable foundations for the future, unleashing the competitive, innovative and expert abilities of the private sector, and ensuring passengers come first.

‘Great British Railways marks a new era in the history of our railways. It will become a single familiar brand with a bold new vision for passengers – of punctual services, simpler tickets and a modern and green railway that meets the needs of the nation.’

Keith Williams, the chair of the Williams Review, said: ‘Our Plan is built around the passenger, with new contracts which prioritise excellent performance and better services, better value fares, and creating clear leadership and real accountability when things go wrong. 

‘Our railway history – rich with Victorian pioneers and engineers, steam and coal, industry and ingenuity – demands a bright future. This plan is the path forward, reforming our railways to ensure they work for everyone in this country.’

The DfT added: ‘In the short and medium term, we will work closely with the sector on measures to encourage passengers back to rail. To reflect changes in the traditional commute and working life, the Government has announced that a new national flexi season ticket will be on sale this summer, with potential savings of hundreds of pounds a year for two and three day-a-week commuters. Tickets will be on sale on 21 June, ready for use on 28 June.

‘The new Passenger Service Contracts will also help to build a more financially stable industry. By removing barriers to new market entrants, including by no longer basing competitions on complex and uncertain revenue forecasts, private operators will be challenged to provide a competitive and customer-focused offer, delivering greater value-for-money for the taxpayer.

‘Local communities will work closely with GBR on designing services, with local leaders given greater control over local ticketing, timetables and stations. The new model will encourage innovative bidders, such as Community Rail Partnerships who want to bid for the GBR contract to operate their local branch lines.

‘New National Rail Contracts will be announced this year. These contracts will be in operation for two years and act as a bridge to reform.’

Reaction has already been coming in.

ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan said: ‘The railway is a key artery in the industrial body of Britain and the social fabric of this country.   ‘That’s why it is deeply disappointing that we have had to wait 18 months for the publication of a report which was finished in November 2019. The people who work on the railway – and the passengers and businesses who depend on us – deserve better.   ‘We welcome the – albeit belated – admission that the privatisation of our railways by John Major’s Tory government in 1994 has been an abject failure. Everyone is delighted to see the back of the franchise system.   ‘The big question is why are private operators still involved in what is, and will always be, a service monopoly where there is, and can be, no real competition? The old arguments of “risk and reward” don’t apply. There are no risks, so why should there be rewards?’

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