John Penrose is MP for Weston-super-Mare and a former Cabinet Office Minister.
There’s just the faintest whiff of new thinking in our railways. A breath of cool air on a passenger’s cheek that might, just possibly, herald a wind of change. And it’s coming, improbably, from the next-door sector of airlines.
The Rail Delivery Group, a big-shot industry trade association, has just suggested a more transparent, simpler to use, modern system of tickets and fares that wouldn’t look out of place in the departure lounge at Gatwick or Heathrow. And a former airline boss, Keith Williams, has been tasked by Government to review how to modernise the entire rail industry as well.
He could be an inspired choice by Transport Ministers, because change is desperately needed. The last few years have brought misery for Southern Rail passengers on a service crippled by strikes, timetable meltdowns on Northwestern and Thameslink and, as the cherry on the cake, the East Coast Mainline franchise collapse. The number of extra passenger journeys that have been crammed onto a Victorian-era network over the last 20 years is genuinely impressive, but now the system is creaking badly. If it were an airline, you’d take your business elsewhere.
But the problem is that we can’t take our business elsewhere. Unlike air travel, there’s only one train company on most routes. It’s weird, really. If Heathrow or Gatwick only let us fly to Paris or Rome on one airline, even though it was often delayed or cancelled, or overbooked, or too expensive, we’d be outraged. We’d demand a choice, so we weren’t at the mercy of a single airline’s planes.
So why not trains too? Why shouldn’t we have a choice of companies providing different types of service between Cardiff and London, or Penzance, or Glasgow? If we think it’s normal and right to choose between different airlines when we fly, why not rail firms when we take a train too?
And, it turns out, what’s normal for airlines is better for passengers too. Giving passengers a choice of different airlines puts us in charge, because we can switch to a different one that’s cheaper, or more reliable, or less strike-prone, whenever we want. And the same thing happens in the very few places where there’s a choice of train companies too. On those routes, if passengers don’t like a particular train company’s service, then they don’t have to wait ten years for the next franchise to be signed; there’ll be a different firm’s train along in a few minutes instead. It forces train companies to raise their game immediately, and perform better every day, because they can’t take us for granted when things go wrong.
The effects are startling. Routes with a choice of train company have services which are far less brittle, because no single company can dictate the entire timetable. Fares tend to rise more slowly. There are fewer delays and less overcrowding. Franchises stop collapsing, because train companies don’t need them to run services anymore. Rail firms experiment more creatively with new routes which passengers aren’t getting at the moment. And if one firm is crippled by strikes, you and I can still get to work on another firm’s trains.
It isn’t just rail firms that would be revolutionised by thinking like airlines. Network Rail could start thinking like Gatwick or Heathrow too. Airports earn money from lots of different airlines which use their runways, and Network Rail could do the same for train companies that use its tracks, treating rail stations like local airports, and auctioning track usage like runway takeoff slots.
The auctions would transform Network Rail’s approach. For the first time ever, they’d know the real value of each track slot. And they’d have a huge incentive to create more capacity, building or managing more of the most valuable track-space by targeting cash for improvements where customers value it most.
Auctions would be simpler and less bureaucratic too. Current franchise documents are a dripping roast for lawyers fees, with hundreds of pages of highly complex technical and legal specifications down, sometimes, to the design of seat upholstery. All of which could be replaced by a few pages of standards for safety, rolling stock performance, passenger comfort and, errr, not much more.
So rail has a chance to learn more lessons from air travel than just ticketing and fares. And, as a former airline boss, Keith Williams could be the most effective teacher. Let’s see how strongly those winds of change will blow.