Keith Williams, Chair of the Williams Rail Review and former boss of British Airways, has warned that it’s now or never to radically overhaul and simplify Britain’s confusing and outdated rail fares system.
Speaking at an industry event organised by the Institute for Government to look at how the UK government will implement the biggest rail reforms in a generation, he stressed that progress on fares is crucial in showing passengers that the government is starting to make the changes cited in the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail white paper.
Noting that revenue risk currently sits with the government, Williams highlighted the need to seize the opportunity because of the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review.
With over 55 million fares, the rail industry has long argued for an overhaul of the system to allow for tap-in, tap-out in cities across the country which would better fit an increasingly flexible workforce, and more flexible pricing on long-distance services to make better use of capacity and help more people to get a seat.
Updating regulations, coupled with investment in ticketing technology, will enable the industry to do away with the current confusing fares system. This will allow passengers to get the best fare for their journey more easily and boost confidence.
The Director General of the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which co-hosted the event, echoed Williams’s views and warned that while the white paper made some promising commitments to review the system, it was thin on the detail about how it would be enacted.
“Now is the best opportunity in a generation to get fares reform right. In the white paper the aspirations are there, it wills the ends but not the means. Pay as you go and simplification of long-distance fares are examples of what train operators have long been calling for. The Comprehensive Spending Review will be critically important to deliver this.”
Discussions also included the need to get the culture of the new organisation right, while still drawing on the best of the private sector.
Bagnall highlighted that enabling the railway to become the backbone of national renewal and connectivity as the country comes out of the pandemic meant a rebalancing of private and public sectors and changed roles for operators.
He added that Great British Railways (GBR) needed to look outwards, not inwards, and warned of a crunch point regarding the content of new passenger contracts.
“If we don’t harness the private sector in the right way, we will not fulfil its aspirations to deliver for customers.
“The key to getting the best out of the private sector is the new passenger service contracts. Train operators are going to need to have more meaningful input and influence for things like timetables and fares. They know their markets but will need the right incentives and flexibilities to respond to customers and changing demand patterns.
“Getting the contract details right is vital to achieve the right outcomes for customers.”
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