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Great British Railways: What does it mean for our trains, ticket prices and the way we travel?

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IT'S being heralded as the biggest shake-up of our railways since the privatisation of the 1990s – but just what does the much-trumpeted Great British Railways proposal mean for services?

Announced yesterday (Thursday) by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, it promises to deliver some fundamental changes to the way our rail network operates – and, music to the ears of many a commuter – "to make the trains run on time".

So will it mean cheaper tickets for travellers? Will private rail franchises be shunted into the sidings? And just when will any changes come into force?

South Western Railway operates services in Hampshire and Dorset
South Western Railway operates services in Hampshire and Dorset

First, a quick history lesson.

British Rail once ran the nation's rail network – a state-owned entity which oversaw the running of services and the up-keep of the rails and stations.

But between 1994 and 1997 it was privatised – ushering in companies bidding to run franchises for each region and Railtrack formed to ensure the rail infrastructure was maintained.

Today, Railtrack has been replaced with Network Rail and private operators such as South Western Railway, which runs services in Hampshire and Dorset, run the vast majority of the county's rail services.

The Great British Railways plans envisage a more centralised transport network – absorbing Network Rail and scrapping the existing franchise agreements.

The public body will oversee timetables, fares and the upkeep of the track and infrastructure.

So when it comes to our trains, what can we expect?

While the franchises are indeed being scrapped, they are instead going to be replaced by 'Passenger Service Contracts'. Arguably franchises but with a different name.

Explains the Department for Transport on the changes to the existing franchise set-up: "This model saw private companies compete for the right to operate services for typically around seven years, and to manage stations and set fares in an area to a specification set out by the Department for Transport or devolved authorities, to whom they paid a fee or received a subsidy.

Johnbosco Nwogbo, campaigns officer, We Own It

"Most operators bore the financial risks of changes in revenue and operating costs.

"Franchising focused operators only on short-term priorities, discouraging them from investing for long-term savings or passenger benefits. It also cemented barriers to more efficient ways of working.

"Misaligned incentives meant operators, who run the trains, and Network Rail, which owns the tracks, could be rewarded for blaming each other or other parties for delays instead of working together to prevent them.

"This has in recent years resulted in spiralling costs, inefficient services and commercially unsustainable franchises tied to ambitious plans that have proved difficult to achieve.

"A new role for operators is needed to restore a focus on providing high quality services for passengers, encouraging people to travel by train and running services more efficiently.

"The government has already started this journey, and a new era of public and private co-operation on the railways will begin with the launch of a new commercial model: Passenger Service Contracts. These reforms will get trains running on time, and deliver more of the competitive private sector involvement that the railways need."

Heard that before? Well the proof will undoubtedly be in the proverbial pudding, but the model is similar to that used by Transport for London – regularly held up as a beacon of a reasonably well-oiled, well organised and integrated transport system.

The DfT adds: "Our new system of Passenger Service Contracts will build on the TfL approach. Great British Railways will specify the timetables, branding, most fares and other aspects of the service and agree a fee with the competitively-procured passenger service operator to provide the service to this specification. In most contracts, fare revenue will go to Great British Railways, with operators delivering to the specification and managing their costs in doing so.

"Operators will take cost risk but will need to balance that with service quality, in order to be efficient while also meeting the needs of passengers.

The pandemic is likely to change our travelling habits
The pandemic is likely to change our travelling habits

"This is a major change from franchising, where each private operator designed their own timetable, set many fares and took revenue on their part of the network. Competitions were based on complex and uncertain revenue forecasts as most operators took both revenue and cost risk: this will end under most Passenger Service Contracts."

So the nation's trains will all look the same, eventually.

Will franchises remain in place? Well the smart money will be on the current rail operators bidding again when their existing franchise agreement runs out – so the chances are we will be still using their services, albeit with Great British Railways' branding. But that scrap for the contract is not for now.

The big issue for many will be fares and value for money.

Most commuters are used to paying thousands a year for a season ticket – and frequently finding themselves standing on busy rush-hour services.

"Franchising focused operators only on short-term priorities, discouraging them from investing for long-term savings or passenger benefits..."

It seems highly unlikely this will change dramatically – but, and this is significant – our changing working habits, ushered in by the pandemic and work-from-home orders, will mean different patterns of work for many.

As a result, more people are expected to split their working week between the office and home – while a more flexible approach to the working day may mean that rush hour bulge flattening a little as workers catch either earlier or later trains.

Adds the DfT: "The railways will have to fight harder for customers who have a choice about when and how to travel, requiring a serious rethink of the facilities they provide, and the fares offered. Getting trains to run on time is a start, but passengers rightly expect, and must receive, a lot more.

"Passengers have been let down in recent years; satisfaction reached a 10-year low in 2018 as delays, cancellations and poor customer service took their toll. The rail sector is not trusted to deliver services in the public interest: public trust reached a low in 2019, when only 20% of people trusted train travel, fewer than those who trust banks and energy suppliers."

Which brings us to flexible season tickets – which will be introduced over the coming months.

Passengers will get a discount without having to pay for full-time season tickets that cover days on which they do not need to travel

Explains the DfT's document outlining the changes: "A new flexible season ticket will be introduced for the growing number of people who do not commute every day.

"Passengers will get a discount without having to pay for full-time season tickets that cover days on which they do not need to travel. Tickets will be sold allowing travel on any eight days in a 28-day period. Passengers will not have to choose the days in advance of travel and they will not have to be spaced out in any particular way over the ticket's validity period.

"Flexible season tickets will launch this summer and will be available on all major commuter routes."

Traditional season tickets will also be available – and it's probably safe to say they will offer a better deal, trip-for-trip, than their new flexible stablemate. But it's a step in the right direction for the post-pandemic era in which we are emerging.

It may, perhaps, be a step too far to expect the cost of our regular tickets to drop. Or, at least, not by very much.

Staying with ticketing, the positive steps of 'tap in and travel' ticket barriers – similar to those in London which require you just to tap your payment method as you enter a station and when you exit at your destination – will be rolled out with "substantial" investment expanding the service on urban and commuter networks beyond the capital. So we can expect to see them at major commuter stations in the county.

In addition, digital tickets will be introduced – allowing to store your season or day-trip ticket on your phone or print it out from home.

Meanwhile, we can but hope a trip further afield, to Liverpool say, will become a more streamlined buying process with the cheapest fare and route clearly on offer – and with greater integration with other transport providers, such as buses and light railways.

Concludes Grant Shapps: "In 1825, this country invented something that spread its iron web across the earth and transformed everywhere it touched. It was, of course, the railway. By the time we celebrate the bicentenary, four years from now, we want this plan to have secured our magnificent network for decades more."

The commuters will, eventually, be the judge of that.

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