Huw Merriman

Photos: Lloyd Winters

UK: ‘The perception that passengers cannot rely on rail is too close to the truth’, Rail Minister Huw Merriman told representatives of the passenger industry on February 21.

Speaking at an event organised by Trainline at 30 St Mary Axe — the ‘Gherkin’ building — in the City of London, Merriman said the rail sector ‘is in a bit of a pickle’, with the current system ‘failing to deliver for passengers in every regard’ and failing to adapt to changing travel patterns. Meanwhile, the government support required as a result of the pandemic ‘has cut a substantial hole in the public purse’.

He said the rail sector ‘must change, it must support itself, must work better and harder for customers’.

However, he also said the rail sector sometimes talks itself down in a way that the car and aviation sectors do not, and ‘our job should also be to talk about the successes of rail, as well as the challenges in the form that we actually need’.

Merriman said he wants to ‘get the private sector on its feet’ as part of the creation of Great British Railways, and to encourage new entrants into the market by putting in place a better balance of risk and reward.

He said the aim is for government and industry to ‘work in partnership, letting the private sector get on with doing what it does best; delivering the services that passengers want, while maximising the revenue growth that the industry needs and instilling principles of competitiveness, innovation, and customer focus’.

Open access

Merriman said he is a ‘huge advocate’ of open access services, and is working with the Office of Rail & Road on changes designed to encourage new open access services while providing ‘fairer’ cost allocation across all operators,

Andy Bagnall of the Rail Partners association which represents owning groups said open access operators are driving passenger and revenue recovery, but they need better financial incentives and more commercial freedom.

Martijn Gilbert, who heads Lumo and Hull Trains as First Group’s Managing Director of Open Access Rail Operations, said operators are currently constrained by the industry model; he said there is currently more incentive for to focus on car parking charges than on integration with local bus services.

He would like the ability to offer passengers new services, for example he sees an opportunity for long-distance operators such as Lumo to offer a paid-for large luggage service.