Where Britain does badly is in the crucial area of reliability. Although its long-distance trains are pretty punctual by European standards, its short-haul ones run late. Britain comes 19th out of 26 European countries for punctuality on local routes— and these are the ones that cause most anguish, as commuters rely on them to get to work on time.
The franchising business has also sometimes proved chaotic. The East Coast mainline franchise has gone bust three times—in 2007, 2009 and 2018—as operators overpromised how much they could pay in track-access charges. Even Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute, a libertarian think-tank which pioneered the idea of separating the management of track and trains, admits that franchises “didn’t work out as we intended”.
Faced with these problems, the government is thinking about new approaches. On some long-distance routes it is running an “open-access” system, under which different companies are allowed to run services along the same route in competition with each other. The idea is to offer passengers a choice, driving down prices and encouraging innovation—something that is discouraged by franchising, in which rail companies are tied to contracts so detailed that some even specify how often train carpets should be shampooed.
The results are encouraging. On the East Coast mainline, open-access operators such as Hull trains and Grand Central now compete for passengers. Average fares are lower than on the West Coast mainline, where the West Midlands trains franchise for stopping services and the Virgin trains franchise for express ones hold near-monopolies. Three of the four train companies with the highest passenger-satisfaction ratings last year were open-access operators, not franchisees.
结果鼓舞人心。在东海岸干线上，Hull train和Grand Central等开放入口的运营商现在正在争夺乘客。平均票价低于西海岸干线，而西海岸干线West Midlands的停车服务专列和Virgin的特快专列几乎处于垄断地位。去年乘客满意度最高的四家列车公司中，有三家是开放接入运营商，而不是特许经销商。