Britain’s railways are “not fit for purpose” and “financially unsustainable”, the transport secretary has said.
In the annual George Bradshaw Address in London on Tuesday, Mark Harper described the railways currently as “mired in industrial action” and “historically unable to deliver major improvements at good value for the taxpayer”.
Setting set out a programme of reform from industry structure to fares, he said: “I won’t mince my words: operating the railways is now financially unsustainable. And it isn’t fair to continue asking taxpayers to foot the bill. Many of whom don’t regularly use the railways, including plenty of my constituents in the Forest of Dean.
“Yet they find themselves subsidising an industry that delivers only 1.5 per cent of all journeys, that disproportionately serves commuters in the South East, and whose funding comes at the expense of other vital transport upgrades.
“Left untreated, we will drive passengers away with poor performance, which leads to fewer services, which will drive more passengers away and so on and so on.”
Only major reform, he said, can break that cycle of decline. The transport secretary said that Great British Railways will take over the running of trains and the network, though he insisted it was not “a return to British Rail”.
The new organisation – whose headquarters location will be announced soon – will be an arm’s length body intended to “take politics out of the railways”.
Mr Harper said it was “the only way to build a truly commercially led industry”.
Andrew Haines, chief executive of Network Rail, will be heading up Great British Railways. He praised the transport secretary’s “clarity of purpose”. But he said: “Our industry is cursed by micro-management at the moment.”
Single-leg pricing, regarded by many rail experts as essential to attracting new passengers, will be cautiously rolled out, Mr Harper said. Initially fare reform – involving reducing single off-peak fares to half the return fare – will be trialled only on the LNER network.
LNER is the main operator on the East Coast main line, linking London with Yorkshire, northeast England and Scotland.
The transport secretary said: “Passengers are not going to be attracted to the railways if they think it’s a rip-off.”
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