By William James
LONDON – Britain will accelerate reforming its underperforming railways, transport minister Mark Harper said on Tuesday, banking on a fresh injection of private sector competition to improve service standards and make ticket pricing fairer.
Britain privatised its railways in the 1990s, splitting infrastructure management from service provision, which complicated long-term investment decisions and spawned a intricate web of rail franchises and siloed ticketing systems.
Battered by the COVID-19 pandemic and more recently disrupted by industrial unrest, the deteriorating quality of key services has drawn widespread criticism but split political opinion on the solution.
While the opposition Labour Party has campaigned for full nationalisation, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives are re-committing to a central role for the private sector.
Harper pledged to push ahead with creating an arm’s length public body named ‘Great British Railways’ – first announced in 2021 – to take over long-term strategy, while promising more flexible operator contracts, lower barriers to entry for rail operators and a liberalised market for rail tickets.
“We need a pragmatic partnership; harnessing the necessary oversight of the state with the dynamism, innovation and efficiency of the private sector,” he said in a speech.
“This is our chance to resurrect some national pride in our railways.”
The pandemic disrupted traditional commuter patterns many operators depended on, driving the existing franchise system into collapse and forcing the state to instead offer contracts to providers in return for running certain services.
But Harper said that model – which exposed the government to the risk of fluctuating revenues – was a short-term fix which would be phased out.
Instead, new-format contracts would spread out those risks, balancing commercial incentives with passengers’ needs. New entrants would also be encouraged to compete with existing services.
Harper also said he wanted a more competitive retail market for ticketing, meaning demand could influence prices more directly on some services and the expansion of pay-as-you-go and simplified ticketing.
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