UK reforms rail travel as virus slashes demand

Long-awaited reforms include centralised price and reservations system

Commuters arrive at London Waterloo railway station in London, U.K., on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. The U.K. economy is building momentum, with real-time indicators suggesting consumers have started to splurge some of the cash theyve saved now that the government has loosened lockdown rules. Photographer: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Britain on Thursday unveiled long-awaited reforms of the country's railways, including a centralised price and reservations system, but insisted it was not retreating on privatisation that started in the 1990s.

Launching a new public body, Great British Railways, the name of which has echoes of nationalised British Rail in the past century, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's pro-privatisation government will take much greater control of the sector.

"Great British Railways will integrate the railways, owning the infrastructure, collecting fare revenue, running and planning the network, and setting most fares and timetables," the Department for Transport said on Wednesday.

The government insisted its plan was "not re-nationalisation", and said that it believed state control "failed the railways".

"Rather, it is simplification," it said. "Private companies will be contracted to run the trains, with stronger competition to run services."

Britain's rail tracks are already in state hands but the trains are run by mostly private companies enjoying large government subsidies.

Since the privatisation of the sector in the mid-1990s, however, the taxpayer has been forced to take over control of franchises that run into financial trouble.

The government plans to lift most Covid restrictions from June 21, and said it would offer flexible season tickets as many office workers were expected to continue working from home.

"I am a great believer in rail but for too long passengers have not had the level of service they deserve," Mr Johnson said.

"By creating Great British Railways, and investing in the future of the network, this government will deliver a rail system the country can be proud of."

The announcement comes after the government in September ended the train operators' franchise system that existed for 24 years.

The arrangement was criticised by train companies and passengers for its inefficiency.

During the pandemic, the state handed significant financial support to the badly derailed sector.

Britain launched its "root and branch" review of the rail sector before the pandemic struck, as commuters battled frustratingly frequent delays and persistently high fares.

Recommendations put forward by review chairman Keith Williams, a former British Airways chief executive, have since taken into account the pandemic's effects on the railways.

The latest plan "is built around the passenger, with new contracts that prioritise excellent performance and better services, better value fares, and creating clear leadership and real accountability when things go wrong", Mr Williams said.

"Our railway history, rich with Victorian pioneers and engineers, steam and coal, industry and ingenuity, demands a bright future."

Official data has shown that about 35 million UK rail journeys were made in the second quarter of 2020 amid the country's first lockdown, down from more than 400 million a year earlier.

This was a level last seen in the mid-19th century, the Office of Rail and Road said.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said Great British Railways, a result of the Williams-Shapps Plan, offers "a modern and green railway", helping the UK to meet its net-zero carbon emissions targets.

The latest train reforms come as Britain looks ahead to two major railway building projects this decade.

Construction on HS2, a high-speed railway connecting London with cities in the north of England, began last year.

Mr Johnson claims that the project, which is to cost more than £100 billion ($141.18bn) funded mostly by the state and will take years to build, will help the country to get back on its feet after the pandemic.

Before the global health crisis struck, Mr Johnson regarded HS2 as a key infrastructure project aimed at helping to drive Britain's post-Brexit economy.

Meanwhile, London's new "Elizabeth" railway, connecting the capital's centre with Heathrow airport, is due to open next year after massive cost overruns and delays.

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