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Rail franchises are running out of track

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The franchise system is not fit for purpose. It no longer delivers benefits for either passengers or the tax-payer. Put bluntly, the franchise system cannot continue the way it is today.
Rail signals. Photo: Amanda Lewis / Getty

But don’t take my word for it, that’s the judgement of the man hired to do a “root and branch” review of the rail system, Keith Williams.

He delivered this damning verdict in a speech given last night to the great and the good of the railway industry.

Williams is far from the first to condemn the current rail set up. In 2017, a House of Commons Transport Committee report said privatised rail in its current form didn’t increase competition; 10 out of 16 franchises between 2012 and 2015  were directly awarded with no competition.

And it didn’t shift the risk to the private sector. In one case, the tax payer was left £38bn out of pocket when ticket sales fell. But the contract meant the Train Operating Company (TOC) got paid all the same. And that was a full year before timetable chaos brought swathes of the railways to a standstill this summer.

And of course, we have always been sceptical that rail franchises could deliver on their promises.

Williams might not be saying anything revolutionary. But the fact that a man appointed by Chris Grayling himself has reached these conclusions offers hope that the government might finally wake up to what rail workers, trade unions and passengers have known for years: rail privatisation hasn’t worked.

As the chaos last summer showed, the passengers (and the economy as a whole) would benefit from a single, integrated railway. A publicly owned railway would have been able to coordinate track and train upgrades to minimise the disruption we saw over the summer. It could reinvest profits into improvements across the line.

One that is publicly owned and capable of coordinating all the aspects of the rail industry for the good of passengers and the tax payer.

The review is a massive opportunity to look at the really radical solutions our rail industry needs.

That means an integrated, publicly owned rail system run for the benefit of passengers and staff, not the TOCs.