Railfuture director and vice-president Stewart Palmer, who has and worked in the rail industry for 38 years, puts Railfuture's view on open access passenger operation in Britain. Lumo has shown that rail can attract more passengers and increase revenue if it offers simple high-value product, but not all open access operations have been or will be successful. Lumo class 803 train at Edinburgh. Image by MrBoyt reproduced under CC BY-SA 4.0.
The last few years have seen the passenger railway in a state of turmoil in Britain. Revenue has collapsed, train service delivery has been poor and there appears to be no sense of strategic direction for the industry. Railfuture has consistently held the view that as a non-political organisation we want a railway that works for users and taxpayers and how that is delivered is not our primary concern. However, the news that the government’s plan to create “Great British Railways” is now in reality a “dead duck” means that the passenger railway is now facing a further period of hiatus with the DfT micro-managing the operation and an obsession with cost cutting, instead of bottom-line optimisation. This is bad news for users and taxpayers. Duplicate services operated by different TOC’s have been systematically removed to allegedly save money and frequencies that were reduced on many routes as a result of Covid have simply not been restored.
As a general principle most people support the idea of choice for consumers. Nobody would seriously suggest for example that there should only be one chain of supermarket, one model of car to buy, or one type of restaurant to eat in. So where do Railfuture stand on the issue of “Open Access” passenger services in Britain? As older members will recall, one of the fundamental ideas of rail privatisation was the creation of more choice. In truth, open access operation has had limited impact on genuine choice, with only the East Coast route seeing any long- term serious competition from open access operations. Various other operations have come and gone, even those backed by people with deep pockets, like the Wrexham to London service, funded by Deutsche Bahn; or have never got to the stage of launching a service despite good intentions, like the Blackpool to London and Cardiff to London proposals. The reasons for this are many, but most people simply have no understanding of the complexity (and therefore cost) of regulatory compliance to operate, or understand the basic economics of any passenger rail operation in the current industry structure.
So, in the context of what looks like a worse service for users in the years ahead being supplied by DfT (who are now effectively calling the shots in what was the franchised railway), should Railfuture support all proposed and existing open access operation going forward? As with so many things there is no simple answer to that question. If we support choice, and therefore best value in terms of quality and price, then the answer logically should be “yes”. But if the open access operation simply extracts revenue from existing rail operations as the market is simply not capable of supporting the required growth in total demand and the revenue “cake” is just being cut up into smaller pieces, then logically the answer is “no”. My conclusion is that Railfuture’s position on this should therefore be to consider each proposed open access operation on its merits and using local knowledge and experience decide whether any proposal is in the long-term interest of rail users and taxpayers before deciding whether to support it, or not.