Virgin Trains has proposed a radical change to the way long-distance rail journeys are sold by using an ‘airline model’ to stop passengers having to stand.
The company’s ideas are part of the UK rail industry’s bid to overhaul the country’s ticketing system. It claims its plans can abolish train overcrowding and complex fares.
Virgin Trains is proposing a reservation-only system that would see passengers having to book a seat before boarding the train in order to guarantee no customers are standing on long journeys. It is also suggesting an airline-style ticketing system, with “one fare available at any given time for any given service”.
Other suggestions include a devolved and longer-term franchise system for short-distance commuter routes that would be integrated with devolved infrastructure management by local governments and the creation of a single, independent and strategic regulator for the railways.
It claims the system would give train operators “longer-term control” of their businesses and would allow companies to focus on customer satisfaction “rather than managing short-term operating contracts”.
On long-distance journeys, Virgin Trains says allowing operators to bid for “bundles of train services” would provide greater choice than at present, while competition on routes would “drive the quality of customer services up and fares down”.
The proposals are Virgin Trains’ contribution to the Williams Review, which was launched by the government in September 2018 to consider reforms that would provide better service and value for money on the UK’s railways.
The company says the East Coast route or new back out of the contract early after it said it would risk financial hardship if it continued services on the route. The franchise is back under government control and now operates as the London North Eastern Railway (LNER).
The company had also been part of a joint bid with Stagecoach and SNCF for the West Coast franchise, but transport secretary Chris Grayling made the decision to disqualify Stagecoach from bidding and instead awarded the contract to Abellio starting this August.
Patrick McCall, senior partner at the Virgin Group, said: “This submission was written before the recent government decision to disqualify our bid for the West Coast Partnership. However, we believe the recommendations are more pertinent than ever given this news. Keith Williams has said that franchising cannot continue as it is now, and it is clear we need systemic industry reform which is driven by principles and a whole-system redesign. Indeed, it is highly questionable whether any franchises can be let sensibly, or robustly, as things stand.
“This will not be an easy fix. Every option will have downsides and there will be some difficult decisions to be made. But there should be no dogmatic fixation on models or ownership. Instead, we must develop a system which optimises the benefits for passengers, taxpayers and communities and which enables train companies to evolve as the world evolves around them. We must be both visionary and pragmatic.”