Since the beginning of last year, the region has witnessed the early termination of the East Coast franchise, responsible for long-distance trains serving key cities.
Last May, rail companies attempted to implement the most ambitious timetable change in living memory. While the aim was to deliver a step change in services by introducing thousands of new trains to better connect towns and cities across the region, the reality was quite different.
While people are benefiting from those extra services now, passengers suffered as the weaknesses in today’s rail system were laid bare. The lack of accountability. The lack of joined-up decision making between track and train. The loss of focus on the people the railway exists to serve.
The events of last year led to some serious soul-searching by the rail industry. That’s why we called for an independent review to look at the entire railway and how it can be bolted together better.
Last autumn, the Government launched just such a review and we have just published our submission to it – our proposals for a new partnership railway of the public and private sectors working together.
These proposals unashamedly eschew political ideology. Instead, they are based on months of conversations with passengers, businesses and communities up and down the country. They draw on the collective wisdom of men and women with decades of experience running the railway and they utilise analysis of networks from around the world.
By taking a pragmatic, evidence-based approach to what will work for the passengers, communities and businesses who rely on rail we have concluded that a one-size-fits all approach is not the answer.
Of course, people want simplicity and a railway that is easy to use. But they also know that there is a difference between the daily suburban commuter, the occasional long-distance leisure user and the rural traveller for whom the train is a vital connection. People want an accountable, joined-up, simple to use railway but one that is flexible enough to meet their different needs.
That’s what our proposals – a long-term plan for real, lasting change – will deliver. In some of our major towns and cities, where commuters depend on the railway every day, there would be democratically-accountable, Transport for London-style single-branded services, with an integrated transport body given greater control. A partnership between the public sector – clear about the precise service it wants – and the private sector, getting on with delivering it.
On long-distance routes where market forces mean there could be genuine competition, multiple operators would compete for passengers’ business. Whether it is quicker more comfortable journeys or faster wi-fi, demand would shape the market – with passengers able to vote with their wallets and change operator if they are not satisfied. The public sector stepping back and letting the private sector innovate, invest and compete. A renewed partnership between train operators and their customers.
On other routes, tough targets combined with clear incentives would be introduced for companies to deliver the outcomes their customers want. A new partnership between the public sector and private operators, replacing today’s tightly-specified inputs-based contracts, with operators freed to innovate to improve, and rewarded only for good performance.
These new types of service would be overseen by a new national body independent of government. It would be the railway’s policeman, holding the industry to account. And, crucially, a new system would be underpinned by a fully-reformed fares system with decades-old regulation updated to make ticket buying easier for all and enabling a best fare guarantee. Commuters able to tap in and out with the confidence of a price cap. A better range of fares and greater flexibility for long-distance passengers.
Now, we are consciously not being specific about which types of service would be right in which parts of the country. Arranging the building blocks that we have set out for a new railway is a decision to be made by government in conjunction with local communities and political leaders. We the industry look forward to continuing that conversation.
Such discussion should not detract from tangible improvements happening today or investment in schemes for the future like Northern Powerhouse Rail.
Getting the right foundations in place will be equally as important in ensuring that Yorkshire has the railway it needs to succeed now and in the decades ahead. The proposals we have set out provide a compelling solution.
Robert Nisbet is director for nations and regions at the Rail Delivery Group.