UK reforms train travel as Covid derails sector

21 May, 2021 12:00 AM printer

LONDON: Britain on Thursday unveiled long-awaited reforms of the country’s railways, including a new centralised price and reservations system, but the government insisted it was not backtracking on the sector’s privatisation.

Launching a new public body, Great British Railways, whose name has echoes of nationalised British Rail in the last century, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pro-privatisation government will take greater control of the sector, reports AFP.

As part of the reforms, the Conservative government will offer flexible season tickets, with office workers continuing to work from home amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Great British Railways will integrate the railways, owning the infrastructure, collecting fare revenue, running and planning the network, and setting most fares and timetables,” the Department for Transport said in a statement.

The government insisted its plan was “not renationalisation”, adding it believed state control “failed the railways”.

“Rather, it is simplification... (and) private companies will be contracted to run the trains, with stronger competition to run services,” it added.

Britain’s rail tracks are already in state hands but the trains are run by mostly private companies enjoying large government subsidies.

And since privatisation of the sector in the mid-1990s, the taxpayer has been forced to take control of financially-struggling franchises.

Johnson believes an improved rail sector can help to drive Britain’s post-Brexit economy and last year allowed construction to begin on the country’s new high-speed HS2 railway despite soaring costs.

“I am a great believer in rail, but for too long passengers have not had the level of service they deserve,” the prime minister said in the statement.

“By creating Great British Railways, and investing in the future of the network, this government will deliver a rail system the country can be proud of.”

The announcement comes after the government in September ended the train operators’ franchise system that existed for 24 years. Franchising was criticised by both train companies and passengers for its inefficiency, while the latest reforms sparked varied reaction.

“The government is right to pursue more flexible ticketing policies, especially in the light of the pandemic,” said Robert Colvile, director of the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank.