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October 14, 2019

Boris Johnson reveals plans to scrap UK rail franchising model

Plans to scrap the UK’s existing rail franchise system and replace it with a new model based on performance and reliability will be announced as part of the Queen’s Speech today.

By Varsha Saraogi

Plans to scrap the UK’s existing rail franchise system and replace it with a new model based on performance and reliability will be announced as part of the Queen’s Speech today.

Held to mark the start of the parliamentary year the Queen’s Speech outlined 22 bills including some measures to allow the UK to “seize the opportunities that Brexit presents”.

The speech comes weeks before the publication of a whitepaper that uses recommendations from an ongoing review by former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams, also known as the Williams Rail Review.

Reforms will focus on getting trains to run on time, a simplified fares system, a new commercial model and industry structure, as well as new proposals for a skilled, diverse and engaged workforce.

At the speech, the UK Government said it is clear the current system, which sees private companies handed localised monopolies over rail lines under long-term contracts, is no longer effective.

The current system – which was introduced when the railways were privatised in the 1990s – will be replaced in a bid to improve struggling services, and will feature stronger involvement of local authorities.

The UK’s first franchises were awarded in late 1995, while the first franchised train to run was operated by South West Trains in February 1996.

Since then, however, franchises have witnessed mixed fortunes. Most recently, Virgin Trains East Coast collapsed and its operations were handed over to state-owned LNER in June 2018.

This has raised concerns over the model itself across the whole sector.

Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph ahead of the announcement, Transport secretary Grant Shapps said passengers deserve a “punctual, modern and reliable” railway.

“Our priority is ensuring we have reliable trains which run on time, delivering the outstanding services communities across the country rely on,” he added.

Chief executive of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), Darren Caplan said: “For these businesses, many of whom are RIA members, it is paramount that changes to the structure of the rail sector do not lead to a pause in work on our railways or a hiatus in longer-term investment, which is so essential in keeping passengers and freight moving and our economy growing – both now and in the future.

“It is encouraging to see the Government’s commitment to a National Infrastructure Strategy – RIA has been calling for a 30-year plan for the railways for some time. As far as our members are concerned, the rail supply sector requires a long term strategy for UK rail, which stops ‘boom and bust’ rail funding for infrastructure and rolling stock once and for all, and which provides consistency and visibility of upcoming enhancements work.

“Getting this right will allow rail business to deliver much more effectively the improvements expected by passengers and freight, whilst also creating and sustaining high value jobs and growing exports in these uncertain times,” Caplan added.

Although the government claims the new bill will largely improve the British rail industry, campaigners are far from convinced and recently dismissed Boris Johnson’s new plan.

General secretary for rail union, National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), Mick Cash said the new plan is “nothing new and the old Tory principle that profits and privatisation come first remains locked in.”

He added: “From what we’ve seen trailed by the government on rail franchising, […] nobody will be fooled by this “same meat, different gravy” spin that’s coming out of Downing Street.

“Private operation of our railways in incompatible with reliable and high quality services, lower fares and investment in infrastructure as train companies will always suck the lifeblood out of the system in profits and dividends. That is a cold hard fact.

“Trying to repackage the racket of franchising for political purposes will fail. Ruling out the public sector option exposes the whole policy for the sham that it is. We need a nationalised railway where quality, investment, planning and safety come first.”

Leader of Leeds City Council and West Yorkshire Combined Authority Transport Lead, Judith Blake said: “We need to ensure any reform puts the interests of passengers first and does not introduce further fragmentation into the network.

“Reform of management processes alone will not fix the failings of the North’s rail network which requires major investment to address the capacity crisis we continue to face.”

Similar dissent came from general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) Manuel Cortes, who emphasised that the industry needs a model that “puts passengers before profit”.

“Anything that falls short of full public ownership of our railways amounts to tinkering at the edges. The British travelling public have had enough of franchising – full stop,” he added.

“Frankly, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that the system by which our railways are run is broken well beyond repair. I would urge Johnson to fully engage with the problem.

“As I have told Keith Williams, only public ownership of our railways will ensure the public interest is served rather continuing with a system designed for the benefit of greedy shareholders.

“Surely even out of touch posh Tories know nothing else will do!”

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