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The Pain In Trains - Make 'Em More Like Planes

Stop overcrowding by booking trains more like planes.
25 April 2019 | Updated 29 April 2019

Train overcrowding and complex ticketing should be abolished, customer experience improved and fares cut under radical ideas according to Virgin’s contribution to the Government’s Williams Rail Review.

As part of a root-and-branch reform, Virgin has called for long-distance rail services to be operated along similar principles to airline routes, with passengers reaping the rewards of greater competition.

Standing on trains would be all but abolished through a reservation-only system which guaranteed every customer a seat in normal operations.

Meanwhile, today’s complex and confusing mix of tickets would be replaced by airline-style ticketing, with one fare available at any given time for any one service.

The model would also generate higher private sector investment in rail by giving operators longer-term control of rail businesses, enabling them to focus on customer satisfaction over the long-term rather than managing short-term operating contracts, says the Virgin Trains' submission.


Williams Rail Review

The Williams Rail Review was launched by the Government in September to consider reforms which would better serve train customers and taxpayers.

Patrick McCall, Senior Partner, Virgin Group, believes the review offers a 'once in a generation' opportunity, urging the review’s chairman, Keith Williams, to back 'fundamental and bold reform' to benefit passengers over the coming decades.

McCall said: “This submission was written before the recent Government decision to disqualify our bid for the West Coast Partnership. However, we believe the recommendations are more pertinent than ever given this news. Keith Williams has said that franchising cannot continue as it is now. It is clear we need systemic industry reform which is driven by principles and a whole-system redesign. Indeed, it is highly questionable whether any franchises can be let sensibly or robustly, as things stand.


Not an easy fix

“This will not be an easy fix," continued McCall. "Every option will have downsides and there will be some difficult decisions to be made. But there should be no dogmatic fixation on models or ownership. Instead, we must develop a system which optimises the benefits for passengers, taxpayers and communities and which enables train companies to evolve. We must be both visionary and pragmatic.”


Virgin Trains’ key recommendations include:

  • An airline style model for long-distance operators which would see them competing against each other via slots that they own indefinitely.

  • A modified, devolved and longer-term franchise system for short distance commuter routes which would be integrated with devolved infrastructure management by local governmental bodies.

  • A more positive development environment for stations.

  • Creation of a single independent and strategic regulator.

The submission calls for track and train to be re-aligned on commuter routes, with responsibility for rail infrastructure and franchising devolved to appropriate regional authorities.

While the model could be widely-applied on the UK’s long-distance routes, Virgin’s submission suggests that the East Coast route or new HS2 services would be the most straightforward initial starting points for the new system.

Picture: Stop overcrowding by booking trains more like planes.

Article written by Brian Shillibeer | Published 25 April 2019


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