The Northwestern and Thameslink rail timetable debacle wasn’t, it turns out, a one-off. We’re into the second week now, and what started as “Meltdown Monday” looks more like “Farcical Fortnight”.
And that’s on top of the East Coast Mainline franchise collapse the week before, which fell over so badly Ministers had to step in and take it over, running it from Whitehall for the next 18 months.
These two disasters shouldn’t surprise us. They’re symptoms of a broken rail franchising system that’s so brittle and inflexible it’s causing misery for millions.
Franchises put train firms first, rather than passengers, because they don’t give us any choice when things go wrong. Why should we be at the mercy of a single train company when the timetable melts down? If a train is delayed or cancelled, we ought to be able to switch to a different firm’s service that’s still running instead.
But franchising takes away that choice. If we don’t like the service which the franchise-holding firm provides, tough; our only choices are to get in the car (jams), a bus (slow) or lump it and get back on the train.
It’s weird, really. We wouldn’t put up with being banned from changing to a different brand of coffee, or cornflakes, or broadband. We expect to be able to choose between a dizzying array of different car insurers or energy firms. But trains? Nope.
So what’s the alternative? Not renationalisation, the darling of the left. Anyone who remembers the bad old days of British Rail will know it was a disaster: an uncomfortable, unreliable service with few passengers, starved of investment and shockingly bad industrial relations.
So let’s stop obsessing about the failed, stale old options of yesterday, and try a new, better alternative that puts passengers first instead.
Open access rail breaks up the franchises so passengers have a choice of different train companies on their local route. If they don’t like one, they don’t have to wait ten years or more for the next franchise to be signed; there’ll be a different firm’s train along in a few minutes instead. It puts passengers in charge, because rail firms can’t take us for granted when things go wrong.
By forcing train companies to raise their game, open access services are usually better too. The overall service is far less brittle, for a start, because no single company can dictate the entire timetable. Fares tend to rise more slowly. There are fewer delays and less overcrowding.
Franchises stop collapsing, because we don’t need them anymore. Rail firms experiment more creatively with new routes which passengers aren’t getting at the moment. And if one firm is crippled by strikes, you and I can still get to work on another firm’s trains.
Open Access treats trains like air travel. Heathrow or Gatwick let you fly to Paris or Rome on a choice of different airlines, not just one. Why not do the same for railways? It’s time for a fresh, new approach.