Commuters across the country could boycott rail companies beset by strikes, in favour of rival firms, under proposals to allow different operators to run trains on the same lines.
Jo Johnson, the transport minister, said the government may give train companies “open access” to more routes in order to give customers a greater choice of services.
His comments came in response to a call from MPs to break the stranglehold individual firms have over routes across the country under the existing franchising system.
It follows the announcement of a “root and branch” review of the rail network by the government last week. A report by the Office of Rail and Road said “no one took charge” during the timetable chaos that caused severe disruption in May.
In a letter to MPs, Mr Johnson said that existing cases where multiple firms run services on the same track offered commuters greater choice and “provided genuinely innovative services”, adding that its use “is expanding and could further expand in the future”.
But he resisted calls to implement the system across the entire country, saying it would leave the government too little control over the railways.
In a paper to be unveiled at the Conservative party conference this week, John Penrose, the former Cabinet Office minister, states that the rail network has become a “brittle, inflexible, complicated, expensive service” but that “renationalisation is not the answer”.
He points to an existing example in Hull of two firms running trains on the same line.
“There are many more examples where multiple train firms already operate successfully on the same sections of track (for example where local commuter service operators share tracks with high speed intercity operators, or with freight trains), which proves that operational compatibility and co-operation between multiple train firms and network rail already works well,” he states.
“Co-operative Open Access rail breaks up the franchises so passengers have a choice of different train companies on each route. If the timetable melts down, or a train breaks down, or there’s a strike, passengers 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 them for granted when things go wrong.”
Mr Penrose set out the proposal in a letter to Mr Grayling earlier this month, which was also signed by Stephen Hammond, a former transport minister.
Responding on Mr Grayling’s behalf, Mr Johnson said that he “recognise[d] the success of open access”, which “is an important part of the mix of services”.
“Our approach to open access is that franchising will continue to deliver the majority of passenger services on the network,” he said.
“However, open access has an important role to play in complementing franchising and providing innovative services to new destinations.”
Concluding the letter, dated September 4, he said: “I trust that my response shows a clear role for open access, one that is expanding and could further expand in the future once reforms are in place”.
But leaving the delivery of the service entirely to the free market “would not deliver the full benefits of the railway for passengers and the economy,” he said.
Mr Penrose’s paper states that open access offers “a proven, popular, positive alternative to the two stale, failed options of an increasingly unpopular, creaking and impractical franchising system or renationalisation.”
The MP also claims that the overhaul would lead to fewer cancellations and delays for passengers as Network Rail, which manages Britain’s rail tracks.
The new system will create “strong financial incentives” for firms to improve reliability so that they can “use more slots”, Mr Penrose said. It would also “cost taxpayers no more” and even lead to reduced costs.