Tony Lodge is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies and author of Changing Track – How to rescue the railways after the pandemic.
If the general election occurs in October next year, there are only seven months when Parliament will sit to enact the Bills contained in next month’s King’s Speech. If the election takes place next April or May, then there is obviously very little time to secure the passage of most new laws. An exception is the long-promised legislation to deliver the biggest reform to the railways since privatisation, bringing about ‘Great British Railways – GBR’, and with it long overdue rail fare reform.
The legislation needed to deliver this change is not extensive. It need not be more than a 15 clause Bill, and should enjoy a relatively easy passage through both Houses. But serious doubts exist as to whether the Bill will be in the King’s Speech.
If it isn’t, then the Government will have abandoned meaningful railway reform and with it the ability to successfully restructure a network still struggling since the pandemic to change, modernise, find direction and leadership. The implications for future investment, growth, levelling up and a better passenger offering are huge. £53m has already been spent setting up the GBR Transition Team which is supported by hundreds of civil servants.
Rail has changed. The key ‘cash cow’ South East commuter markets are still stubbornly underperforming and are only likely to produce less revenue as the expanded Transport for London network consumes more of this area. Millions of rail journeys a month that were made in and out of London before the pandemic are no longer occurring on weekdays. London’s three main commuter lines – South Western, Southeastern and Govia Thameslink, carry about 22 million fewer passengers a month than four years ago, according to the Office of Rail and Road.
So what should ministers deliver by July next year?
1. A new Transport Bill to establish Great British Railways (GBR)
GBR has been long promised by Mark Harper and his predecessor, Grant Shapps. It would establish a public body to own and run the infrastructure (replacing Network Rail) and contract private companies to run to the timetable and fares it sets, thus replacing franchising. Different firms would compete at the tender stage to make the best value bid. Heralded in the Plan for Rail White Paper in 2021, it was the product of three years work. The Bill should have been published in 2022 but recent political upheaval and a fear rail isn’t a priority is causing huge nervousness across the sector. Importantly GBR can encourage on-track train competition which is crucial. See point 3 below.
For the travelling public, this would likely see the return of a single brand for the railways avoiding the unnecessary confusion of tickets that can be used on one operator’s train but not another, despite being on the same line and visiting the same destination.
2. Long promised rail fare reform before any ticket office closures
Getting passengers back on rail is best delivered with easier and cheaper tickets. Plans announced last month to start closing nearly every ticket office in England are back to front.
In due course, they might be justified based on changing passenger retail habits, but this will only work if left to evolve with alternative customer friendly retail solutions already in place. Passengers need to be told that the closure of manned ticket kiosks will only follow the smooth introduction of the world’s best GBR digital ticketing system which can provide the cheapest and most flexible fares at the time of purchase. But where is it?
It is 20 months since the Government announced it planned to let the ‘Consolidated Online Retail Support’ – known as CORS – tender to deliver this new system and with it long-awaited fare reform. This process doesn’t need legislation but it has – as with GBR – been held back. Why?
If the legislation to deliver the long touted Great British Railways (GBR) is to be included in the King’s Speech then surely it makes sense for the GBR digital ticketing plan to be ready to go too? Out of date peak ticketing for markets which have since disappeared need to stop. Why is Avanti West Coast trying to sell a first class ticket between Preston and London Euston next Tuesday at 8am for £257? The standard class fare is £76.
Cheaper, better targeted and flexible digital ticketing has long been overdue, especially since the pandemic destroyed rail’s economic base, particularly peak time commuting. Rail’s annual subsidy now runs to £11 billion and the priority must be to win back passengers despite the terrible backdrop of strikes and unreliability. The answer is fare transparency, more cost competitive tickets, better customer information and a new rail reward/loyalty scheme where points are earned for future travel and across wider retail.
3. Encourage and approve more open access rail competition across Britain
Ten years ago, I wrote on ConservativeHome about the huge potential for passengers offered by high speed train competition, known as ‘open access’. It is a levelling up tragedy that new competitive open access train services have not been approved on the West Coast Main Line or Midland Main Line as they have on the parallel East Coast Main Line (ECML).
On the ECML between London King’s Cross, the North East and Edinburgh passengers can choose from four competing intercity services who provide cheaper fares, more routes and more fast trains. Latest passenger statistics show that the train operators LNER, Grand Central, LUMO and Hull Trains enjoy the highest passenger satisfaction and have won back almost all of their pre-pandemic passengers.
Mark Harper said in his Bradshaw Address earlier this year that he wanted to see more open access train competition and that the model is clearly a success where track space allows. Alongside the creation of the new GBR and long-awaited rail retail reform, we now need to see a new thrust which encourages rail’s private sector innovators to apply to run competing train services in the knowledge that the best ones will be swiftly approved. Whilst the Secretary of State’s words were positive ministers must understand that the rest of the country does not and cannot operate at the notoriously slow pace that seems to surround all Department for Transport and ORR decision making.
Sixty years ago, a Conservative Government approved the controversial Beeching Report. It delivered a sobering analysis of the problems facing the railways and how modernisation, efficiencies and services more in line with what customers want provided a solution. The same is true today as the sector desperately looks for a strategy and leadership.