Posted 28th November 2023 | 3 Comments

Lobby group steps up support for private sector rail

The lobbying group Rail Partners has made a new bid to get the private sector more involved in operating passenger railways.

The group has already campaigned for a continuation of privately-owned operators, and for them to have greater commercial freedom than they have under current National Rail Contracts. Although the Government appears to be sympathetic, the Labour Party has said it would move towards a ‘publicly-owned railway’ in England if it gains power at the next General Election.

The Scottish and Welsh operators have already been renationalised by the devolved governments, while three previously-franchised English operators, Southeastern, Northern and TransPennine Express, have also been returned to state control.

LNER was set up as a nationalised operator from the start in 2018 following the failure of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise, which was mostly owned by Stagecoach.

Rail Partners is now calling for more open access operators to be permitted, such as Grand Central, Hull Trains and Lumo. The Office of Rail and Road has already approved an application by Grand Union Trains to operate five trains a day between London, Cardiff and Carmarthen from December 2024, although Grand Union says the opening date is yet to be confirmed because it is in talks with rolling stock suppliers. Grand Central has also just been granted permission to call at Peterborough for the first time.

Another operator, Wrexham & Shropshire, had to close in early 2011 after financial problems.

Rail industry leaders met in London for Rail Partners’ Open Access Summit, to discuss ‘unlocking the potential of open access rail operations’ within Britain. The discussion focused on how to encourage new open access services and how to remove existing barriers to prospective entrants.

Yesterday’s event was attended by rail minister Huw Merriman, who Rail Partners described as ‘a longstanding advocate of open access operations’.

Also at the meeting were civil servants from the Department for Transport and the Treasury. They were joined by representatives of Network Rail, the ORR, existing open access operators, rolling stock leasing companies, third-party ticket retailers and many of the owning groups, including Arriva Group, FirstGroup, Mitsui, MTR, Trenitalia and Transport UK (formerly Abellio).

Rail Partners chief executive Andy Bagnall said: ‘Alongside the important role played by contracted operators, open access services have the potential to deliver really tangible benefits for passengers and communities across the UK.

‘Currently, the system is not set up to fully unlock that potential, or attract new entrants into the market. That’s why bringing together so many senior industry colleagues to work together, find the solutions, and remove those barriers is so important, and we’re optimistic that we will see measures to support open access in the near future.’

Arriva UK Trains managing director David Brown added: ‘Open-access operators, like Arriva’s Grand Central, are of vital importance to our railway, driving competition and innovation at the same time as connecting areas of the country that are underserved by the regular timetable.

‘Today’s summit was a welcome first-step in ensuring the role of open-access operators is not only safeguarded but encouraged to grow.’ 

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • Chris Jones-Bridger, Buckley Flintshire

    Despite having established Open Access operators do we yet have clarity of the true revenue & costs involved. Perhaps costs are easier to identify given the operational cost of staffing & operating the trains but are we assured Open Access operators are making a fair contribution to track access?

    I think revenue remains problematic. Unless Open Access are offering an exclusive ticketing offer there is a degree of sharing revenue through the Orcats arrangements. Since day one of privatisation how this has been allocated between operators sharing a route has been subject to at best imprecise calculation.

    To date Open Access operators operating a scheduled service have planned to compete on London centric inter city routes. As a positive they've sharpened the competitive edge against the franchised/contracted operator & introduced services to neglected locations. However how much of the business case rests on revenue sharing & abstraction over the core trunk route? To use an airline analogy do Ryanair & Easyjet pool revenue on a shared route and then share the proceeds? No, they have their own discrete revenue pots.

    However now that Open Access is an established principle and backed by the owning groups perhaps ot is the time to challenge them to put their money where their mouths are. Thanks to the new train builds for MML & WCML significant quantities of quality modern stock is due off lease. Let's see them offer new routes, perhaps on the Lumo model, at their own risk subject to agreed access & pathing with NR with lighter touch regulation from ORR. And let's see them looking at routes excluding London that have been excluded from CrossCountry as the latter has been forced to retreat to its operational core.

  • david C smith, Bletchley

    One thing that strikes me re. this is that we currently have the regular interval intercity trains, both out of the London termini, and to limited extent on cross country " intensive" corridor services , but there are gaps in through train provision (for journeys.where intensive service can't be justified) ,and which were abadoned over recent years.

    Perhaps a further group of long distsance trains adapted for 24 hour utilisation , to give a day and a return nighttime journey on routes such as Cardiff - Edinburgh, Brighton - Manchester or Leicester and Nottingham - Newcastle - Scotland could fill in the gaps.

  • Tony Smale, WAREHAM

    Open Access? Bring it on! But why are the potential operators so disinterested in running anything south of the Thames? We've lost a number of direct trains over the years such as Brighton-Plymouth, Brighton-Bristol, Portsmouth-Manchester and Southampton-Newcastle. Surely there's scope for a quality product with on-board catering in the affluent South !?!