MPs urge rail franchise reforms

Monday, July 27, 2009


The rail franchise system is "a muddle" which allows train companies to "take advantage" of passengers and needs reform, a report by MPs has warned.
The Commons transport committee said operators were making profits in good times but forcing the government to step in when revenues fall.
And they charged "unacceptable" fare rises of up to 11% above inflation.
The Association of Train Operating Companies said four-fifths of passengers bought discounted tickets.
The MPs pointed to the "high profile failure" of operators GNER and National Express as evidence of underlying problems.
They urged the government to run East Coast trains itself after the Edinburgh to London route was hit by dwindling passenger numbers.
State ownership
The government is set to take the National Express-run franchise into state ownership after ministers refused its requests for its contract to be renegotiated.
But National Express said it continued "to meet or exceed all of its franchise commitments" and had "made significant improvements in the performance of the service taking it from the bottom to the top of the long distance operators".
"It is recognised the challenges facing East Coast are purely financial as a result of the recession," a spokesman said.
The franchise mess is beyond reform and the only real solution is a return to public ownership of railways
Bob CrowRMT general secretary
The committee of MPs said nationalisation could be a way of comparing the performance of the public and private sectors.
They also raised concerns about ticket prices.
Passengers had to go to "extraordinary lengths" to get cheap fares and fares had risen out of all proportion to the rest of the economy, the committee said.
However, tighter rules will now tie all prices to inflation plus 1% - and should mean most fares are cheaper by next January.
The committee's Labour chairwoman Louise Ellman said: "The fare rises we saw this year were excessive.
"Companies cream off profits in good times, but leave passengers to pick up the bill when hard times hit."
Transport Secretary Lord Adonis has now closed a loophole which allowed train companies to increase prices of certain journeys if average fares remained within rules.
'High profile failure'
Anthony Smith, chief executive of rail customer watchdog Passenger Focus, welcomed the report.
"Passengers tell us in no uncertain terms that they find the fares and ticketing system confusing and unfair," he said.
"Passengers don't mind who runs the railway. What they care about is their ticket offering value for money, sufficient services and punctual trains."
Shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers said the report was "scathing about the way Labour has run the rail franchising system".
"The government has failed to tackle the problems on our railways, creating a franchise system which resorts to pricing passengers off the railway to deal with overcrowding," she said.
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The system is run in a fragmented fashion by companies whose principal aim is profit
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Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT union, agreed.
"The franchise mess is beyond reform and the only real solution is a return to public ownership of railways," he said.
However, Peter White, professor of public transport systems at the University of Westminster, told the BBC having longer franchises for companies could have "substantial benefits".
"For example, they could invest in improved ticketing systems such as smartcards," he said.
"But the problem is that if you've made a long-term franchise commitment and the company runs into difficulty, you must have some means of curtailing that franchise over a shorter period."
There should be more sharing of risk and more sharing of profits
Norman Baker Lib Dem spokesman
Liberal Democrat transport spokesman Norman Baker backed longer franchises which he said would "end the bureaucratic costs of changing operators every few years".
"In order to have longer franchises there has to be a robust system to take account of the ups and downs in the economy. The present system doesn't do that," he said.
"There should be more sharing of risk and more sharing of profits. We need a thorough review of the franchise system because at present it is creaking at the seams."
Lord Adonis said reforms to improve the rail franchising system were being considered - including longer franchises.
"When the rail franchising system was examined by the National Audit Office last year they found that it was delivering good value for money, and steadily improving services," he said.
"The government will consider the committee's report and respond fully in due course."

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