‘The railways aren’t fit for purpose’ – so what do ministers propose?

Train Talk: What the passenger wants is clear – now the government has to deliver

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 08 February 2023 07:59 GMT
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Arriving soon? Passengers are desperate for reliable trains at a fair price
Arriving soon? Passengers are desperate for reliable trains at a fair price (Simon Calder)

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“The railways, quite frankly, aren’t fit for purpose.” That quote could have come from any opposition politician.

“We have them mired in industrial action, which lets passengers and freight customers down. They’re historically unable to deliver major improvements at good value for the taxpayer.”

How refreshing, then, to hear this from the minister who is directly in charge of the railways: transport secretary Mark Harper. On Tuesday evening, delivering the George Bradshaw Address in London, he spelled out the ramshackle nature of train travel – and promised to improve it.

Passengers want trains to be reliable, punctual and affordable.Many rail travellers say their experience fails all three tests.

“The railways need fundamental reform and that is what we will deliver,” Mr Harper vows. Instead of civil servants at the Department for Transport (DfT) directing every aspect of train operations, a new “guiding mind” known as Great British Railways will run the show.

“It is not the role of ministers to pore over operational decisions,” he says.

Crucially, Mr Harper wants to rationalise fares – untangling the anomalies that successive governments have allowed to build up with no fewer than 55 million different fares on offer.

So, what will you notice? The briefing provided to The DailyTelegraph at the weekend had heralded the abolition of return tickets – with a long-overdue move to single-leg pricing.

Since rail privatisation in the 1990s, countless anomalies have been “baked in” to the fares system, in a botched attempt to protect passengers against sharp price rises. The absurdity that many return tickets cost less than 1 per cent more than singles is overdue to be torn up. The only way to do this is almost to halve many existing single fares.

It looked as though the measure would be launched nationwide. Now it turns out that only LNER, the government-run operation on the East Coast main line, will bring in the change over the next few months. At present there is a trial offering exactly this notion, but only from Edinburgh, Newcastle and Leeds to London.

That move has itself introduced yet more anomalies (anyone from Durham to York heading one-way to the capital should buy a ticket from Newcastle to save). The broader experiment will affect shorter journeys such as London-Stevenage and Durham-Newcastle, with impacts on other operators running on the same routes.

Let us hope that the unintended consequences hasten the universal move towards single leg pricing. But there are many more flaws, which has led to the practice of “split ticketing”: legally exploiting anomalies in the fares system to cut the cost of rail travel. The “Didcot Dodge” will almost always save a passenger between London and Bristol a small fortune, by buying one to the Oxfordshire town and then a second to their final destination.

However attractive the fare, though, if the service is hopelessly unreliable passengers will continue to move away.

The transport secretary emphasises that the current disputes with the RMT union and the train drivers’ union, Aslef, will be settled only when reforms – such as making Sunday part of the working week everywhere – are accepted. That suggests more disruption over the next few months.

But Mr Harper acknowledges: “Left untreated, we will drive passengers away with poor performance, which leads to fewer services, which will drive more passengers away and so on.”

Will it work? Nigel Harris, the managing editor of Rail magazine, believes it can. He welcomes “the idea of the DfT backing off from micro-management”.

Mr Harris says: “It’s not their expertise, they’re risk averse. The railway has only ever worked anywhere near properly when there has been a body of expertise running it.”

I shall be watching – and, if rail performance does not improve, waiting.

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