OPINION: Goodbye to the era of franchises for rail firms – but will we have a better future?

Could a new system of rail commissioning see Greater Anglia's new trains moved to other parts of the

Could a new system of rail commissioning see Greater Anglia's new trains moved to other parts of the country? Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

This week’s news that the rail franchise system is effectively dead and is to be replaced by a new “commissioning” model with the government engaging companies to run specific services has been lost in all the other news about Covid, but it’s a really big deal for travellers, says Paul Geater.

Some have welcomed the end of the franchise system that was brought in by John Major’s Conservative government in the mid-1990s, refined by the Labour government of Tony Blair (under the watchful eye of John Prescott), and further tweaked over the last 10 years.

In the current circumstances where the passenger market has collapsed, and there is little sign of large numbers of commuters returning for the foreseeable future, the current franchise system where private companies (many backed by other states’ rail operators) had to pay millions in fees to run the services was clearly unsustainable.

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No one knows exactly how the new commissioning model will work – the rail industry and the government now has 18 months to work out the details – but there are strong suggestions that the London model where Transport for London commissions bus and rail companies to provide the services and collects the fares may be what emerges.

The demise of franchising has been greeted with glee by people from across the political spectrum – but before there is too much dancing on the grave, let’s take a balanced look at what has happened to the railways over the last 25 years.

There have been massive problems with franchising. Companies were encouraged to over-bid by billions in an attempt to gain the right to run some franchises. The East Coast Main Line franchise from London to Edinburgh, Leeds, and Newcastle saw one private operator run into the ground and two were forced to hand back the keys of it to the Department for Transport because they could not make the sums add up.

There were also problems in some franchises in the north of England with delays to the delivery of new trains.

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However we should not dismiss all the successes of the rail industry over the last 25 years – especially in this part of the world. And to suggest that the franchises had nothing to do with that is stretching things to a ridiculous degree.

The number of passengers, which had been falling steadily since the end of the Second World War, has been on a generally upward trajectory until Covid hit. There are now about twice as many passengers as there were under British Rail.

We have seen many, many more new trains than anyone would have expected under a nationalised system – certainly we have seen more over the last quarter century than we did under BR. Will that continue under any new arrangement?

If the government does start regulating train services from the centre in London, I fear that our rail services in East Anglia will suffer. We were always seen as a “Cinderella region” under BR – having to rely on other regions’ cast-off trains that were “cascaded” to this region once something better came along.

What is a concern is that if the Department of Transport takes over control of services, its bureaucrats will look at the gleaming new Stadler trains in East Anglia and think: “They’d give an instant boost in the North East, Midlands, or wherever” and we’d end up with some of the clapped out trains that these areas are so anxious to get rid of.

The one thing franchising gave us was an operator concentrating on services in this region. That has sometimes worked better than others – Anglia Railways and Greater Anglia really innovated with new services and new trains while First Great Eastern and National Express always gave the impression that they were just looking at the most efficient way of operating what they had and weren’t really interested in innovation.

No one really knows what will happen next. Over the last 25 years Britain has discovered just how important its rail services are, and despite the issues of the last six months the government does seem to realise the importance of the industry.

It will not allow full nationalisation to come in – BR did show that really didn’t work – but it is important that whatever does come in, there is some local input. It must not allow the railways to become a monolithic organisation run from London, one that sometimes appears to regard passengers as an unwelcome inconvenience!