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Duelling visions for rail

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The rail minister and her opposition counterpart laid out their visions for rail in front of hundreds of delegates at the West Coast Partnership Stakeholder Conference.

Both could agree on one thing: rail had to change and in a way that kept the customer in mind.

Neither held back on their opinions. Rail minister Wendy Morton described the industry as, if it was a patient, being in need of A&E. Meanwhile, shadow transport minister Tan Dhesi said passengers shouldn’t need a second mortgage to go from Manchester to London.

Morton began with her message to delegates, saying that: “This is an existential moment for our railways. Nationally, passenger levels remain at 75% of pre-pandemic levels. 

“Revenues are down, and costs remained high for years. The current operating model has proven ineffective. We’ve seen franchise failures, a timetable collapse and falling passenger satisfaction. 

“This cannot continue. If the industry were a patient, we’d have already wheeled it into A&E. And COVID has only increased the urgency with which we need to act.”

She outlined the need to be there for customers: “Speaking as someone who has run a business. I know the first rule is to meet your customer where they are. If their needs and expectations change, you must change with them; only 5% of passengers now use an annual season ticket.”

She drew attention to rail’s recovery, arguing that the current numbers suggest that the industry’s current way of doing business is lagging behind a lower passenger demand. “A business model centred on the morning commute has overnight become out of date,” she said. “The industry must respond to this new normal, and that’s why we’ve already sold 200,000 flexible season tickets, giving passengers more freedom to choose when they travel. We’re simplifying journeys through contactless.”

She said ticketing was just one element of improving services and praised the West Coast Partnership for investing £117 million in the UK’s biggest ever train fleet upgrade. She was also thrilled to hear of its plans to replace its current diesel trains with new electric and bimodal options. 

She said the Integrated Rail Plan would help bring better, faster services that would positively impact local economies. 

She promised that new contracts, replacing the current franchise model, would not be one-size-fits-all but adapt to the communities they serve. 

She said: “I mentioned earlier that the current model has had its day. The need to focus on the passenger has been overtaken by a lack of accountability and a blame game amongst various parts of the industry. Franchising has hindered innovation and forced operators to take on complex long-term revenue modelling. 

Avanti West Coast, I’m sure, will help us seamlessly bridge the gap between the current arrangements and a future commercial model.

“A leading world economy needs a reliable, resilient and efficient rail network, one that continues to shape our lives in a positive way as it has done for 200 years.” 

Tan Dhesi effectively reinforced Morton’s sentiments that rail would be at the centre of a strong economy. He said: “Pre-pandemic, in 2019, the railway supported 42.9 billion pounds of economic production and 710,000 jobs. It provided £14.1 billion in tax revenues, and for every one pound of activity on the railway, £2.50 of income was generated along the supply chain. 

“And on our railways, productivity and wages are higher than the economy-wide average in every region. Clearly, our industry is key to economic prosperity.”

But he suggested Labour would diverge greatly from the government on electrification progress, as well as on the Integrated Rail Plan: “We will do what the government have failed to do and deliver a rolling programme of rail electrification that we’ve seen work to great success in other European nations, and we would complete the Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 in full, including the now-scrapped eastern leg to Leeds. 

“Connectivity — or the lack of it — between our great northern cities is an insult, I feel, to the people who live there and holds back economic growth in the north.” 

He added: “Rail travel must be a cost-effective option for all, with clear ticketing policies across the network.  

“If we can roll out a nationwide vaccine programme, I am sure that we can make it easy to travel from Manchester to London without the need for somebody to take out a second mortgage. 

“We need long-term planning, especially around issues of workforce. We can’t wait for the RNEP for well over 900 days when it should be published annually. 

“And we need to ensure that we replace the generation of railway men and women who are coming up to retirement: recruiting and supporting apprentices and trainees to replace them.” 

If Morton set out the importance of meeting customers where they were, Dhesi set out the importance of meeting political structures where they operate: “We need to work with the new topography of the British Constitution: city regions, city mayors, enhanced devolution to Scotland and Wales to make rail systems locally accountable and regionally integrated. 

“Buses, trams and trains should be in sync, both on timetable and ticketing. Ensure that the ease of the oyster system is not just reserved to London. 

“What we cannot do, though, is simply replace one outmoded system or franchising with another under great British Railways. We need a bold new vision for the future of our railways.”

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