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BBT March/April 2019 cover
March/April 2019

Mystery Buyer: Can the train take the strain?

Train on tracks

A thriving UK Plc needs a modernised rail service – so the new government must commit to upping its game

Following June’s general election, we have – ostensibly – a new government. In fact, first indications suggest there’s not a lot “new” about it, but while the political landscape may have changed dramatically, the economic landscape is much the same as it was before. The UK’s transport infrastructure still needs urgent government attention.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pre-election pledge to renationalise the UK’s railways was never going to be a vote-winner with the business travel community. The privatisation of British Rail, completed 20 years ago, coupled with huge technological improvements, has resulted in significant benefits for British businesses and their travelling employees, and few of us would want to go back to the old days.

While older rail travellers may mourn the disappearance of the formal dining car, the privatised train operating companies (TOCs) have introduced new trains, new services, new ticketing and booking technologies and – by and large – made everyone’s rail travel easier, more pleasant, and more productive.

The Liberal Democrats and the Green Party were always going to be broadly pro-rail for environmental reasons, although the latter had qualms about HS2; UKIP’s thinking has been somewhat unclear, although the SNP-dominated Scottish Parliament’s award of the ScotRail franchise to Abelio, a foreign company, cannot have gone down well.

While it’s not, let’s say, entirely clear who’s in charge for the foreseeable future, the new government has an enormous amount on its plate. However, it should recognise from he outset that ‘business’ at home and abroad sustains the national economy. Government responsibilities, such as the NHS, education and the armed forces, cost money.

Business, trade, entrepreneurship – call it what you will – generates money. Anything that the government can do to facilitate, support and encourage ‘business’ will, in the short term and the long run, be in the nation’s financial interest.

And business needs transport. The old system didn’t work. The ‘new’ system has seen a vast improvement, but it is still a long way from ideal. If a company needs its employees to travel between Southampton and London, for example, or between Manchester and Glasgow, or Birmingham and Leeds, the options remain limited.

As travel buyers, we are negotiating with individual monopoly suppliers – franchisees which are not subject to commercial competitive pressures. Putting it bluntly, we can’t trade one off against another, because there is no ‘another’.

So-called ‘open access’ could be a step in the right direction, but the Office of Rail & Roads (ORR) has baulked at authorising realistic competition.

In theory, Arriva-owned Alliance Rail will next year be allowed to compete with Virgin Trains on the West Coast Main Line between Blackpool and London, but that would appear to result in just six extra daily services. Virgin won’t have a monopoly, but with an average of two departures an hour throughout the day, it won’t be too threatened – or incentivised – by six extra services a day.

Other more ambitious open-access plans have been proposed but turned down; smaller-scale changes appear to be under consideration but, generally speaking, businesses need more than commuter-style connectivity.

New infrastructure – particularly HS2 – would be welcome, but will take time. New thinking can bring quick wins, and at little or no cost.

The trainsets, tracks, signals and stations are already in place. The technology will doubtless be improved and expanded in the months and years to come. The demand from the crucial, revenue-generating corporate sector is already there.

We have a new government with a great deal on its plate, but making better use of our existing passenger rail system should be a priority. The economy needs it. 

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