Michael Williams

Rail franchise system runs out of steam – but will the alternative be better?

September 21, 2020 Blog


A QUARTER of a century after rail privatisation began, the UK’s system of train operating franchises has run out of steam – with the government making “the first step in bringing Britain’s fragmented network back together.”

The move, announced by transport secretary Grant Shapps, comes as the government extended its programme of emergency payments to train companies as a result of the coronavirus. A combination of government warnings and passenger anxieties has led to a dramatic drop in usage and fares revenue.

The old nationalised British Rail was broken up and  put up for sale by John Major’s government in 1994, and the franchises have faced much criticism ever since. Three companies failed in their operations on the East Coast main line, leaving the government to take over. Another – Northern – was stripped of its franchise earlier this year because it was so inefficient.

The Department for Transport (DfT) now says franchising arrangements will be replaced by “a simpler, effective model through high performance targets and simplified journeys”.

But will the end of privatisation be a good thing? Despite the denigrators, it has undoubtedly led to a better quality of service overall and much investment and innovation. And not all were a failure. Virgin ran the West Coast main line successfully for many years. Those who seek the return of British Rail, with its dead hand management, dirty trains and curling sandwiches, should be careful what they wish for.

September 21, 2020 Blog

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