The Government has published its new Strategic Vision for Rail, setting out policy on what the rail network should look like and how it is to be managed.
The most eye-catching part of the announcement concerns plans to add new lines to the network. Citing our Expanding the Railways report, the vision highlights the role that new and reopened rail lines could play in expanding labour markets, supporting housing growth, tackling road congestion and many other benefits. Everyone loves a good reopening project and this 'Beeching in reverse' was eagerly seized on by the media. Strong, long-standing reopening campaigns like Ashington, Blyth and Tyne, Portishead and Okehampton - three of our top 12 reopenings - were namechecked and will hopefully be among the first to benefit from the change in policy.
This is a major change - one of our key campaigns - so we are happy to welcome it. The strategy holds out help from Network Rail and from the Government in developing schemes and making the process transparent. We need to see detail and funding to back all this up and we will be campaigning for for another announcement - the Rail Upgrade Plan - to tackle those problems head-on.
Reopenings were the most passenger-friendly part of the Vision announcement. While sepia images of long closed rail lines were filling the news, the more significant element of the Strategic Vision actually concerns franchising reform, and here passenger input continues to be notable mainly by its absence.
Whatever you think of franchising, it is clear the existing model faces major risks which will be worsened if there is a fall in passenger numbers or a slowdown in the wider economy. Our thought leadership programme recently set out new thinking involving different franchise models operating in different areas of the country.
It seems we are heading in this direction. In operational terms, Chris Grayling's long-held ambition for integrated management of tracks and trains became clearer with plans for much closer working between Network Rail and train operators. To a degree, the proof of the pudding will in the eating. Will the new arrangements mean fewer delays and better targetted investment? These things most certainly benefit passengers, but they are not the same as having a direct input into decisions about a railway that income from fares increasingly pays for.
The Government also announced a consultation on splitting the Great Western franchise in two smaller and more manageable units, but the biggest test of the new set-up is likely to be with the East Coast franchise. Alongside the announcement of the Strategic Vision came confirmation that the current East Coast franchise is being cut short. Rumours have been circulating for some time that East Coast was in trouble again after 2009's contract default. The current franchise will now end in 2020 and be replaced with public-private affair involving Network Rail. This new management model is an ideal opportunity to give passengers and communities more involvement in the railway. We will be pushing for these groups to be given a direct say in service and investment decisions, and not just through a one-off paper consultation.
On fares and ticketing, the strategy again ducked the fundamental reform we think is needed. There is a lot of talk of smart technology leading to pay-as-you-go tickets, and the new railcard for 26-30s is of course welcome, but beyond that the strategy merely includes warm words about working with the rail industry to develop and test potential reforms and remove complexity and perverse pricing. However, we understand that pilots on single-leg ticketing, ending split ticketing and season tickets for part time workers, agreed in principle a year ago, are still in a holding pattern over the DfT while economists argue about whether they will lose revenue or whether this should be tested out.
Elsewhere in the Strategic Vision, there are warm words and repeated commitments to things that do matter to passengers - compensation, a new rail ombudsman, investment in improved disabled access and much else. This is all welcome and important, but is overshadowed by the problems facing franchising. Stability and efficiency are vital, but so too is a model which offers deeper involvement and influence for passengers. With the building blocks of change now in place, the challenge for both the Government and rail industry is to deliver such a vision.
Image by Damien Walmsley.