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Command Paper gets industry talking

The Government’s Command Paper on cutting costs and boosting efficiency in the rail industry has been broadly welcomed by most rail bodies and been given a cautious welcome by passenger groups, but others have deep reservations about the proposals on fares, station staffing and greater TOC involvement in infrastructure.

The Government has high hopes for smart ticketing in cutting costs, as well as driver-only trains, and more consideration of cost-cutting when awarding franchises. Transport Secretary Justine Greening has tasked the industry with saving £3.5bn a year.

Network Rail said it was pleased that the Government recognised that there was “no alternative” to investing in infrastructure to boost capacity, and said it was pleased ministers have chosen not to instigate a fundamental restructuring of the industry.

Chief executive Sir David Higgins, who took over just over a year ago, said: “Today's command paper gives us a solid platform on which to continue to carry out that task as well as to contribute, along with our partners in the Railway Delivery Group, to the debate about how we continue to maximise performance whilst balancing it with our other objectives of increasing capacity, improving journey time and reducing cost. We look forward to the government's next contribution to that debate in the high level output specification in July of this year.”

ATOC boss Michael Roberts called it a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to reform the railways and called on the DfT to stop micro-managing, saying: “The Government must genuinely step back from the detail, give the railways the freedom to run better services at a lower cost and resist increasing the burden of red tape.

“It is also high time to take a fresh look at fares and ticketing. The way that fares are regulated by the Government has remained largely unchanged since privatisation and often no longer reflects how people travel or buy their tickets.”

The ORR said it “welcomes the Government’s recognition…of the need for a more unified regulatory structure for the railways and, specifically, that ORR should be empowered to drive improvements in efficiency and passengers’ experience across the system as a whole”.

Railway Industry Association director general Jeremy Candfield said the body particularly welcomes the Government pledge to work more closely with the industry on planning for rolling stock orders and refurbishments.

He said: “The commitments to improve dialogue to strengthen the capability of the UK supply chain and to work with industry in the publication of a long-term rolling stock plan are also vitally important.”

Passenger Focus chief executive Anthony Smith said he welcomed the aim of cutting costs in the industry, as long as it meant a good deal for passengers in the long term. But he warned that in the short term, there were concerns about affordability of fares, and he condemned plans to cut numbers of station staff.

He said: “Significant peak price hikes might force many into an unpleasant choice: pay up or change job, if you can.

He added: “Let’s try to tempt passengers away from peak time travel, rather than penalise them for doing so – many commuters have little choice when deciding when to travel.

“Changes to off peak long distance fares regulation represent a leap in the dark. The affordable, walk up railway could easily disappear as passengers are forced to be inflexible and book ahead. No-one really knows how passengers will change behaviour – any changes will have to be monitored very carefully to ensure the effect on passengers is well known and understood.”

On staffing at stations, he said: “Once ticketing information and vending machines are radically improved staff could be redeployed on platforms to help passengers. All our research indicates passengers really like the re-assurance only the presence of staff can bring. Taking staff away from stations would represent a very short-term, short-sighted saving.”

The Rail Delivery Group, set up immediately following the publication of Sir Roy McNulty’s review last year, will ‘accept the challenge’ set down by the Government, according to its chairman, Tim O’Toole.

He said: “The Command Paper lays out the Government’s vision for an expanding and efficient railway that meets the needs of passengers, freight users and taxpayers. The Government sees the Rail Delivery Group leading the industry in driving up efficiency and demand for the railway. This is a challenge that we accept.”

RMT general secretary Bob Crow condemned the plan as a “recipe for exploitation”, saying it would mean higher fares for passengers, lower safety standards, job cuts, privatised local stretches of track, worse terms and conditions for rail workers, and more fragmentation. He added: “This whole Command Paper could have been written by the private train operators who want longer franchises and the right to jack up fares and to seize control of infrastructure so that they can continue to rack up billions of pounds of profits and dividends while charging the highest fares in Europe to travel on the worst services.”

Matt Kuzemko, managing director of rail services at May Gurney, said: “Research conducted for May Gurney reveals half of Britons say current rail fares deter them from travelling by train, while 70% of those who travel by train said they already pay enough for their travel and would not be willing to pay more even for better trains and railway infrastructure

“Electronic ticketing, more flexible peak and off peak arrangements and infrastructure improvement are all important steps towards creating improved services for the travelling public.”

The Freight Transport Association said it welcomed the focus on freight and gave a cautious welcome on alliances, but warned against ever letting freight becoming a second-class customer on the railways.

The Rail Freight Group went further, however, registering its ‘disappointment’ at Government backing for vertical integration between track and train operators, despite backing the calls for further investment in freight.

It said: “Total separation of train and track is a pre requisite for successful and competitive rail freight growth, and we will continue to oppose these reforms.”

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