Andy Bagnall, Chief Executive of Rail Partners takes stock of the plan to revolutionise the country’s railways
Saturday 20 May marked two years since the government’s Plan for Rail was published, setting out a blueprint for transforming the way the railway is run in the interests of passengers. Last week there was also speculation the Plan was about to be shelved. But rail is at a critical juncture and we must move quickly or risk missing the opportunity for successful reform.
It is no secret the railway is on life support and we have to correctly diagnose the problem before we can provide the right course of treatment – and there are many factors as to why we have arrived at this destination.
Even before the pandemic, the blurring of lines between respective roles and responsibilities of the Department for Transport, Network Rail as the public sector infrastructure manager, both private and public sector train operators and, more recently, the Great British Railways Transition Team, has left the railway with too many cooks preventing effective service delivery.
When Covid-19 hit, it not only disrupted travel patterns and commuter behaviour, but wreaked havoc with the railway’s finances on an unprecedented scale, compounded by the wider economic turbulence of inflation and slow growth.
Throw in the long drawn-out rail dispute currently undermining reliability across the network. Rail operators want to offer their people pay increases and job security but any deal must be affordable through reforms to boost productivity, especially at a time when the government is taking all cost and revenue risk in the railway and setting all fares, meaning the taxpayer will fund any cost increases.
Two weeks ago we saw the operator Transpennine Express taken into public hands. The operator recognised it had not delivered the level of service customers had a right to expect but it took the entire blame for the complex cocktail of underlying causes driving the railway’s current challenges.
The Plan for Rail is the only blueprint available for rapidly delivering a better railway quickly. The alternative is sleepwalking into a spiral of decline with all the negative economic and environmental consequences that would entail.
The government needs to legislate to create Great British Railways – the public sector ‘guiding mind’ for the railways – aligning track and train in the customer’s interests. Legislation would provide a clear signal of intent from the government and re-establish defined relationships between government, the infrastructure manager and operators who directly provide the service to people using trains. It would also give certainty to freight operators who need a stable environment to attract goods from our congested roads.
As it stands, passenger operators are stuck on ‘National Rail Contracts’, which pay a flat fee to run specified services and do not give operators the commercial flexibilities to attract customers. These contracts were a necessary response to the pandemic but are insufficient to drive recovery. Rapid introduction of contractual flexibility is essential and this can be done with or without legislation.
In the longer term, evolving the contractual model to create a variety of ‘Passenger Service Contracts’, reflecting the different requirements of the railway in different areas, is the key to harnessing operators to build a thriving network that can offer passengers a good service and value for money.
Fixing the railway is a collaborative effort. A reformed public-private partnership harnessing the expertise of the private sector under a new public body will drive growth and restore a railway that is fit for purpose for the passenger.
The time has come to implement the Plan for Rail and it cannot wait any longer.
Andy Bagnall is Chief Executive of Rail Partners