The end of rail franchising: what will replace it?

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Alex Burrows
Alex Burrows

Alex Burrows comments on Monday’s announcement about the end of rail franchising and sets out a series of challenges which we, here in BCRRE and the Rail Alliance, would like to see considered,  coming out of this new approach.

In news that will have not come as a shock to most readers, the UK Government finally announced on Monday that rail franchising is over. The key questions are: why has it taken so long; and why is there not a system (or a plan) for how to replace rail franchises? In the Government announcement there are transitional arrangements being put in place – Emergency Recovery Measures Agreements – which will see current operators through to what we hope is a post-COVID landscape in 2021/22. These are vital measures, as the railway has effectively needed to be nationalised in order to provide the financial support from Government in place to keep operations going in the current situation.

Franchising was already bust before COVID, though. We have seen the number of bids competing for franchises diminishing over the last few years, with overly-optimistic bidding and complex timetable changes. These combine with infrastructure upgrades and new fleet introductions to cause significant damage to the operation and reputation of the UK railway. This had to be stopped sooner rather than later. Indeed, the Williams Review that started in 2018 was meant to steer the railway towards a post-franchising world. However the COVID pandemic has put paid to an organised and planned transition and we are now in a rapid transition forced by uncontrollable events.

So what will come next? The first two things that we can all hope for are (1) that we get over the pandemic quickly and (2) that society recovers – including (especially) its appetite for rail travel – so the railway (both the supply industry and the operating network and infrastructure) can start to pick up in terms of activity and demand. Both of these seem likely to happen, although not without significant pain and difficulties for many organisations and, given the most recent government advice on dealing with the spread of the virus, not in the immediate future.

Working files
Photo courtesy of Pixaby

We have been promised a White Paper from the Transport Secretary which will set out plans for the new system of organisation for the railway. We know that it will address two critical areas that were part of the brief for the Williams Review: a better deal for passengers and strategic leadership from the top. The Government will also want to see the railway get back on its feet with, ultimately, much less taxpayer support required and more private investment going into the railway. To deliver this, there will need to be more than management contracts to deliver rail services.

Here at BCRRE and from my own policy research, we encourage:

  • A new, flexible system for the railway which can deliver on the requirements of its customers (both passengers and freight) in particular regions and on particular routes.
  • A much greater ability to promote, develop and deploy new technologies.
    Greater long-term planning and commitment to invest in upgrades and maintenance.
  • Much stronger incentive to work in partnership than to constantly be competitively bidding for job after job after job.
  • Clarity and simplicity in everything, from fares, to governance structures, to approvals.
  • And there absolutely must be a big picture, to which everyone is signed up and which everyone understands is the goal we all share. Here at BCRRE and across the Rail Alliance we want to see everyone in the railway family, whatever their duties are, wherever they are, with the same shared goal: to make the UK railway the best transport system it can be, the system of choice for people and goods, the preferred method for movement, and something that everyone aspires to be a part of.

Join us at October’s Rail Alliance community event where we will hear more about what the end of the franchising model will mean to companies up and down the rail supply chain, and how you can position your company to be ready for the new-normal!

Contact Alex at or continue the conversation on Twitter @bcrre.


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