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Treating trains like planes would revolutionise our railways

Treating trains like planes would revolutionise our railways

One of the early casualties of coronavirus was railway franchising, writes John Pensrose. | PA Images

4 min read

Railway licensing isn’t a bold, radical or exciting alternative, but a rebadged version of franchising, or nationalization-lite, but with the same faults.

One of the early casualties of coronavirus was railway franchising. It had been in intensive care for months already, poor thing, as timetable meltdowns and franchise collapses weakened its immune system. The pandemic sent passenger numbers and ticket revenues tumbling and, soon after the lockdown began, it breathed its last. The Government had to step in, and now train firms are being paid a management fee to run the same services as before, with taxpayers footing the bill for mounting losses.  

The man called in to solve the problem was Keith Williams, whose report into the future of the railways is due out soon. He had already announced franchising was at death’s door so, now he’s been proved right, everyone wants to know what he’s going to propose instead.

Sadly, the signs aren’t good. Most rail firms are expecting recommendations that look depressingly like the stop-gap licensing measures rushed out by Ministers a few weeks ago. Government officials and politicians will set the train timetables, the fares, the types and size of trains right down to the colours the carriages are painted, and then pay train firms a license fee to run the services. There will be a few eye-catching initiatives to add variety and a dash of colour, but they will be small-scale and peripheral.

But a licensing system has all the same flaws and shortcomings as the failed, stale systems that came before. Like franchised or nationalised railways, licensed rail doesn’t give passengers any choice about what they’re buying, or any alternatives when things go wrong. The simple-but-fundamental power of having the right to switch to a better supplier that’s cheaper, or better quality, or faster, or has kinder staff. It’s what passengers expect (and get) in every other part of their lives, whether they’re buying coffee or cars or cornflakes, and it’s ultimately the only thing that will stop rail firms from taking passengers for granted. But neither licensing, franchising nor nationalization has it.

So licensing isn’t a bold, radical or exciting alternative that will hand power to frustrated and fuming passengers and set our railways up for a bright, modern future in 21st century Britain. Far from it. It’s a short-term stopgap to stop the system falling over: a rebadged version of franchising, or nationalization-lite, but with all the same faults. If the industry insiders are right and Williams recommends a version of it as the long term future of rail, it won’t just be a huge wasted opportunity: it will be a massive failure of nerve. A retreat into a world that feels safe and comfortable because it is familiar, but with all the same flaws and failures as its predecessors. 

If licensing isn’t the future, what is? The answer is to give passengers a choice of different train firms to take them wherever they want to go, rather than just one. If you or I prefer one company’s carriages over another, or a timetable melts down, or a train breaks down, or there’s a strike, we shouldn’t have to take what we’re given. We should be able to switch to another firm’s service and carry on regardless.

It’s an idea we already take for granted whenever we travel by air. If you want to go from London to Paris there are dozens of different airlines you can choose, but only one train firm. Giving train passengers the same choices as frequent flyers puts them in charge, and makes services far less brittle because no single company can dictate the entire timetable. And that means fares rise more slowly, with fewer delays and less overcrowding too.

Treating trains like planes would revolutionize our railways. Fortunately, Keith Williams used to work in air travel, before he was drafted in to care for our dying rail franchises. Let’s see whether his training makes him bold and radical, or whether his nerve will fail.


John Pensrose is the Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare.


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