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Nigel Harris is right to bemoan the consistent ‘hitting the post’ and missed goals of the Rail Delivery Group’s well-meant attempt to tackle and expose Labour’s flawed plans to renationalise the railways ( RAIL 839). It is as frustrating as it is depressing.
In the 54 pages of the RDG report In Partnership for Britain’s
Prosperity, there isn’t one reference to the need to deliver more on-track rail competition, which delivers real passenger choice - but instead there are various references to the need for more competition at the franchise bid stage. This is phrased as a need for more ‘competition for the market’, which surely should read more ‘competition in the market’.
This conscious and consistent blind spot for the RDG and some civil servants helps give weight to many of Jeremy Corbyn’s mistaken but tabloid-friendly accusations.
I have debated with Labour politicians in the past on the future of rail, and they tend to go very quiet when you point out that the highest rail passenger satisfaction in the UK is on the East Coast Main Line, where two open access operators compete with the franchise and deliver choice, fare competition and more routes - with many in Labour heartlands.
Importantly, the Competition and Markets Authority has also delivered research on this issue with its considerable 235-page Competition in Passenger Rail Services in Great Britain report from 2016. It recommended that more on-track competition should be delivered, either with much more open access competing with franchises on the same railway or with multiple operators providing services in a fully commercial environment, subject to a licensing regime which would manage the auctioning of train paths.
These were preferred against two other options examined: two successful bidders for each franchise; and franchise overlaps on specific flows. It called on the Government to start implementing its recommendations on longdistance inter-city routes from 2023.
Encouragingly, Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling told the Commons (in reply to Tewkesbury’s Conservative MP Laurence Robertson) on October 19: “We welcome open access applications. They have made a real difference to many towns and cities around the country. It is clear that open access should happen where there is capacity for it to take place and that it fills in gaps and puts in competition.”
The rail industry should now seize the initiative and encourage Government to deliver a more competitive railway, in line with the CMA’s calls and the successful and mature ECML test case. Otherwise, Corbyn’s calls for nationalisation will grow louder and win even more supporters, most of whom don’t remember the failures and managed decline of the old British Rail. Tony Lodge, Research Fellow, Centre for Policy Studies Author, Rail’s Second Chance - putting competition back on track
Open access operator Grand Central has been running on the East Coast Main LIne for a decade, from Sunderland to London via the Durham Coast Line, but had to fight hard to gain a foothold. A GC HST leaves Newcastle on April 7 2009 with an empty coaching stock move for Heaton depot.