Call to devolve control of regional rail services

Some of Britain’s commuter rail services should be controlled by local transport authorities, an industry body has said.

The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) believes the current “one size fits all” approach to franchising should be replaced by a more bespoke model.

That could lead to groups such as Transport for London (TfL), Transport for the North and Transport for West Midlands being responsible for handing out contracts to private firms to run regional trains.

These contracts could involve no revenue risk to operators who are paid a set price for running an effective service, the RDG proposed.

The organisation, which represents train companies and Network Rail, claimed TfL’s London Overground network should be “viewed as a model for future arrangements in other parts of the country”.

The majority of rail services in Britain are operated by fixed-term franchises, which involve the Department for Transport (DfT) setting out a specification covering areas such as service levels, upgrades and performance.

Train companies then submit bids to run the franchise and the DfT selects one of the applicants.

In its submission to the Government-commissioned Rail Review, the RDG proposed that competition should be increased for long-distance routes.

This would lead to fares based on demand and more innovation by operators as they compete for passengers’ business, the proposal stated.

Competition is rare on Britain’s railway, with customers often having no choice about which train company they use to travel on a particular route.

A new independent organising body should be put in charge of the industry to ensure decisions are taken away from day-to-day politics, according to the RDG.

It called for Britain’s railway to learn lessons from Sweden, which it described as having a good balance between public and private involvement, competitive pricing on intercity routes and contracts which meet regional needs.

RDG chief executive Paul Plummer said: “These proposals call time on short-term fixes and set out the once-in-a-generation system upgrade the railway needs if it is to help the country prosper over the next 25 years.

“We want to move forward with a rail system that is more focused on customers, more responsive to local communities and more accountable, letting rail companies deliver what people want in each area of the country and rebuilding trust between the industry and passengers.”

Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union general secretary Mick Cash accused the RDG of proposing a “deregulated free-for-all” that would lead to fare rises “by the minute” and a break from “the last shreds of accountability”.

Anthony Smith, chief executive of watchdog Transport Focus, said passengers would “ultimately judge” whether any changes result in improved reliability, more space to stand or sit and better value for money.

The Rail Review is being chaired by former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams.

He has previously said the way train companies are contracted to run services is “no longer delivering clear benefits”.

His inquiry will conclude in the autumn.

Virgin Group’s submission included a suggestion that passengers should not be allowed to board long-distance trains without a reservation, in a bid to reduce overcrowding.

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