Passengers should have nearly as much choice when choosing which train company to use as when choosing to buy a new toothpaste.
That is the view of John Penrose, the MP for Weston-super-Mare, who wants to put an end to “monopolies” on the railways.
The Conservative Party politician wants competition on the Great Western mainline and beyond so passengers can choose different rail providers if they are not happy with the franchise holder’s performance.
Mr Penrose predicted having more operators – using an ‘open access’ model of running the railways – would give travellers both cheaper fares and also drive up standards as train operators compete with each other to provide the best service.
“I’d like to see more choice for local rail users in Bristol, Weston, Swindon and everywhere else so that if they don’t like the service that is being provided by First [owner of Great Western Railways], then they don’t have to wait 10 years until the franchise ends – they can wait 10 minutes until a different train company’s service comes past and they can get on that instead,” said Mr Penrose.
“It may be cheaper or more comfortable – all the variation you expect when you buy a car or when you choose a toothpaste, or whatever it may be. I’d love to see that.”
Great Western Railway (GWR), owned by First Group, currently has the contract to run inter-city trains between Weston-super-Mare, Bristol and London Paddington, having won the franchise for 2015-2020.
But Mr Penrose, a former Cabinet Office minister, said the franchise system operated by the Department for Transport (DfT) amounted to “selling monopolies” for a set time period.
Passengers would be better served if multiple train companies could compete on the same stretch of track because it would force them to become “innovative” to keep passengers happy, he told Bristol Live.
He said new classes of train travel could be brought in to attract both high-end and budget travellers as part of the possible improvements.
Mr Penrose said he wanted to see “two or three bidders” on the Great Western mainline “running different trains with different time slots over the course of the next 10 years”.
He said: “It means [train companies] don’t have one spasm of competitive activity every 10 years [to win the franchise] and then they relax.
“You have to carry on trying really hard and peddling hard to keep you and me as the travelling public happy every single day for the next 10 years.”
What has GWR said?
A spokesman for GWR said it was for the DfT to decide how rail franchising was carried out in future.
The government is undertaking a review of franchising after the East Coast mainline route between London and Edinburgh collapsed earlier this year – the third time it has done so in 12 years.
The GWR spokesman said there was already “competition on many parts of our network” with the line through Weston served by GWR and Cross Country, while South Western Railways also serves Bristol and the West of England region.
A DfT spokeswoman said the current franchise model had brought investment to the Great Western mainline.
“Billions of pounds are being invested in projects to transform the Great Western network and give passengers new services and new, more comfortable trains,” said the spokeswoman.
DfT is negotiating with GWR to extend its contract until 2022 to allow for the Network Rail upgrade on the line to be completed before the franchise is put out again to new bidders.