The UK’s rail franchising system has “had its day”, the man in charge with reviewing Britain’s railways has said.
Former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams, who is leading a government-commissioned review into how to improve the industry, said the franchising model needed to be replaced by a “new commercial model” that worked in the interests of passengers.
He suggested that an independent and “arms length” body could be created to act as a guiding mind for the railway, with the government taking less of a day-to-day role in running it.
Giving a speech in Bradford today, Williams said: “What’s absolutely clear is that the current franchising model has had its day.
“What worked in the 25 years after privatisation is now holding the sector back. It hampers collaboration, stops the railway working as a system and encourages operators to protect narrow commercial interest above passengers.”
He continued: “As a result, passengers experience difficulty moving between different lines and operators particularly during disruption, don’t get the information they want and expect about the source delays and how to navigate round them, and are left with a lurking feeling that train companies prioritise profit over customer service.”
The franchising model, in which passenger services are contracted out to train operators by the government, came into disrepute during last year’s May timetable chaos, in which thousands of trains were cancelled, delayed and overcrowded.
In the aftermath of the chaos passengers’ frustration was focused on the lack of accountability, with one report finding that neither the train operators of Network Rail, which owns the rail infrastructure, “took charge”.
The former BA boss also said that performance targets such as punctuality should be introduced to bring about “genuine behavioural and cultural change” and that the fares and ticketing system, which has not been updated since the 1990s, should be simplified.
Williams will deliver his findings to the Department for Transport (DfT) later in the summer in time for a government white paper in the autumn.
Jacqueline Starr, chief operating officer at the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators and Network Rail, said: “Businesses, communities and passengers across the country have told us that they want easier fares, increased accountability and a system which allows rail companies to focus more fully on delivering for customers.
“While we await the detail, it’s very encouraging to see these areas being prioritised by the review team. Our proposals for a single independent organising body would ensure everyone is working towards the same customer-centric goals and changes to fares regulations would reduce overcrowding on some of the busiest services and create an easier to use, better value fares system for all.”
Andy McDonald MP, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, said: “Keith Williams misses the point. Continuing with private train operators subject to performance related payments means sticking with a failed, unaccountable and disjointed railway.
“Instead, we should bring the track and train together in a single company in public ownership – but, critically, at arms length from government and removed from government interference and micromanagement.”