The Transport Secretary has announced plans for a new public sector body named Great British Railways – also known as GBR – which will oversee Britain’s railway, as well as the extension of a trial scrapping return tickets on some rail journeys.
Labour’s shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh has said passengers are paying more for less “under the Conservatives’ broken rail system”, but others have welcomed the GBR and single ticket fare announcements.
So, how will Great British Railways work, how will it change rail services and could single tickets instead of return fares be better for travellers?
Here’s what we know so far.
What is Great British Railways?
Transport Secretary Mark Harper announced during his George Bradshaw Address to rail industry leaders in London on 7 February that Great British Railways is in the process of being established.
Mr Harper said GBR will be responsible for ‘track and train’, as well as revenue and cost, which means treating the railway as a whole coordinated system rather than a series of separate interests.
He noted that GBR will be customer-focused and will serve as the single point of accountability for the performance of the railway, with its long-term strategy aiming to provide direction to the sector.
However, Mr Harper noted that GBR is not going to be Network Rail 2.0, nor a return to British Rail. He said “taking politics out of the railways is the only way to build a truly commercially led industry”, which is why GBR will be an arm’s length body with a balanced approach to both infrastructure and operations.
He said ministers will provide strategic direction and be accountable to Parliament, but won’t make operational decisions – this will be left to industry experts in regional GBR divisions instead.
Andy Bagnall, Chief Executive of Rail Partners, said the proposals for GBR is a “welcome step in the right direction”, as the new framework “can create greater coherence and accountability across the network”, as well as giving train companies “the freedom to use their commercial expertise to respond to customer needs”.
Will single ticket fares replace return tickets?
The Transport Secretary also confirmed during his speech that publicly-owned London North Eastern Railway (LNER) will extend its trial of selling only single tickets on its routes.
LNER operates trains between London and Peterborough, the East Midlands, Leeds and York, through to Newcastle, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow.
Mr Harper said that after LNER’s “successful” single fare pricing trial, this will now be extended to other parts of the LNER network from the spring. The results of this extended trial will then be “carefully considered” before deciding whether to extend it more widely to other train operators.
Under the trial, a flexible single fare is always half the cost of a return, which Mr Harper said gives passengers “more flexibility and better value”.
As an example, LNER said that when its trial began on 2 January 2020 the cost of a super off-peak single ticket from London to Edinburgh would be £73.70. That’s instead of £146.40 for a single and £147.40 for a super off-peak return.
The LNER trial was designed to address issues whereby people were purchasing single tickets for long distance journeys, sometimes at nearly the cost of the return fare.
Currently, many singles are £1 less than a return.
The trial replaced return fares with single tickets around half the price of a return ticket, with the aim of allowing customers to select the best ticket options for their journeys more easily and give passengers the opportunity to ‘mix and match’ the best ticket for each leg of their journey.
Demand-based pricing on some LNER services will also now be trialled, which will see train fares fluctuate depending on how many seats have been filled.
Labour’s shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh has criticised the current ticketing system and rail infrastructure, as she said “whichever ticket you buy, passengers are paying more for less under the Conservatives’ broken rail system”.
She added: “Thirteen years of failure has seen fares soar, more services than ever cancelled, while failing operators continue to be handed millions in taxpayers’ cash.
England’s regulated fares, which include season tickets on most commuter journeys, some off-peak return tickets on long-distance journeys and flexible tickets for travel around major cities, are set to increase by up to 5.9% from 5 March.
But rail industry membership body the Rail Delivery Group welcomed the extension of the single ticket trials, as a spokesperson told FactCheck that the industry has “long called for fares to be made simpler and easier for our customers”, so the announcement is “a welcome step in the right direction”.
The spokesperson said single-leg pricing will help to create “a simplified system that everyone can understand” and will give customers “control” over the journeys that they pay for.