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Next UK government must deliver ‘urgently needed’ rail reform

The UK’s rail industry is in urgent need of reform and a likely general election this year could have a profound outcome on its future – that was the view of Matt Peake, director of public policy and government relations at Trainline, speaking at the Advantage Travel Partnership’s Business Travel Symposium in London last week.

While leisure passenger numbers on the UK’s railways have more or less recovered to 2019 levels, “there’s a lot more to do in the business sector” said Peake. “We’ve seen industrial action, major infrastructure cuts [including the northern leg of HS2] and we continue to see a lack of legislation in rail reform which we urgently need.”

The upshot is a lack of confidence for business travellers while the “certainty and stability” which businesses and the wider economy crave is unlikely to arrive any time soon.

“Indeed, political uncertainty is likely to dominate globally this year,” said Peake, noting that more than half the world’s population – four billion people across 76 countries – will be eligible to vote in national elections this year. They include the United States, Brazil, Russia, India and, in all likelihood, the UK. In addition, European parliament elections will take place in June.

“All of these elections are likely to have profound implications for business stability and consumer confidence and the wider economy in the US and globally,” said Peake.

In the UK, the Labour party is pulling away from the ruling Conservative party, according to recent polls, and is planning for a general election that could be held as early as May but “on the balance of probability will take place in November,” said Peake.

He highlighted Labour’s intention to nationalise the railways but said whichever party is in power in 2025 must deliver a “clear and coherent industrial strategy”.

Another barrier to progress is the “continued churn in leadership”, said Peake. There have been seven Conservative transport secretaries since 2011. “Regardless of your political affiliations, it’s not helping businesses to succeed. Unfortunately what you get with the changes is new appointments who are often totally unfamiliar with their brief. They are pitched into it and that makes it hard for businesses like ours to foster proper long-term relationships.”

Peake said the rail industry also needs to embrace open access – where routes are served by competing operators – and must focus on innovation and exploit rail’s environmental credentials. Trainline research shows the “vast majority” of business travellers want to reduce their reliance on air travel because of the effect it has on the environment, said Peake. “But rail has to be a reliable, credible alternative and frankly, at the moment, it’s not in a lot of cases.”

Regarding open access, Peake pointed to the EU where rail networks are opening up to more competition. “People benefit from more choice of service and pricing. We need to try to make this a reality in the UK.” Rail fares between Paris and Lyon have fallen 47 per cent since the pandemic while in Spain there are now four operators offering services between Madrid and Barcelona, with tickets now available for as little as €11.

“While it’s encouraging we’re seeing signs of competition coming in the Channel Tunnel, possibly with up to three carriers, the fact remains that the UK lags far behind the EU in terms of open access,” said Peake. “We have to try and change this. If we open up this country to proper rail competition we can get to a point where you have easyJet style pricing, especially across cities in the north. It’s a very attractive prospect and it’s not particularly difficult to do, you just need the right policy.”

Peake concluded: “Our message to government and to Labour is to act with urgency and purpose and make this happen. It’s going to be a year of huge change. Politically the landscape will likely look very different but hopefully it brings opportunity and, whichever government gets into power in the UK, they listen to business and they deliver the stability and certainty that we all need to grow the economy.”