New franchise deals must safeguard passengers

There’s scant evidence to suggest longer franchise periodsthat on its own this will result in improved performance or a better deal for rail passengers.

Alexandra Woodsworth runs Fair Fares Now, the campaign for cheaper, simpler, fairer train fares at Campaign for Better Transport

The contracts between train companies and the government are deeply technical and announcements about franchise policy often pass by with little attention outside the trade press – certainly much less than is heaped upon anything to do with fares and tickets. But franchise agreements dictate almost every aspect of what both passengers and the government get in return for their money, and deserve more scrutiny.

Yesterday’s statement on changes to franchise policy had some good news for those who, like us, want to improve passengers’ journeys and indeed actively encourage people out of their cars and onto the train.

Overcrowding, one of passengers’ top complaints, is to be measured for the first time in cities other than London, and train companies will have to satisfy targets for adequate capacity. There is also a recognition that certain “non-profitable” elements such as early and late trains will need to be written into the contract to protect socially necessary services.

But many positive sounding commitments are undermined by the fact that decisions about the details of what passengers can expect will be made on a case-by-case basis, which leaves vital aspects of train service levels to be haggled over behind closed doors. Particularly worrying is the fact that short-listed bidders will help to set the terms of the contract, which hands yet more power to operators.

There is also very little clarity about who will ultimately pay for the investment that it is hoped these longer franchises will deliver. A storm is currently brewing in West Yorkshire, where passengers may be asked to effectively pay twice over for the introduction of 12 new carriages onto the extremely overcrowded local network. Will bids that promise investment also be allowed to pass the costs on to passengers in the form of higher fares?

Overall, the drive is towards more commercial freedom for the train companies and longer franchise periods. While this may bring in more revenue for the operators and the public purse, there’s scant evidence to suggest that on its own this will result in improved performance or a better deal for passengers.

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