LONDON (Reuters) - The British government is planning a major overhaul of the country’s much-criticised railways in a bid to improve efficiency and stop excuses for poor service like the wrong kind of snow or leaves causing delays on the line.
In the biggest rail shake-up for 20 years, Transport Minister Chris Grayling said on Tuesday he will give train operators a role in managing tracks and infrastructure as well.
Trains and tracks were separated when Britain’s railways were privatised in 1997 under the Conservative government of John Major but passengers’ groups have long claimed the division promotes buck-passing and inefficiency.
“The railways of this country are crucial to its economic future,” Grayling was due to say according to extracts released by his office. “Our railways need to adapt and change in order to be able to cope with the growth that they have experienced.”
Since privatisation, passenger numbers have doubled, leading to overcrowding and putting more pressure on state-owned Network Rail, the organisation that maintains tracks and upgrades infrastructure.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has made spending on infrastructure like railways a priority to kickstart an economy potentially weakened by Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Grayling said he wants rail contracts awarded from 2018 in England to have the company operating the services form a joint management team with bosses from Network Rail.
He will also set up East West Rail, a new government organisation aimed at building a new line between Oxford and Cambridge that will be run as an integrated project, with the public and private sector working closely together.
Grayling hopes by bringing Network Rail closer to the train operators, which include listed companies like Stagecoach (SGC.L) and First Group (FGP.L), delays and issues will be solved more quickly, ending the underperformance of Britain’s railways against European peers on some measures.
Weary British commuters have heard endless variations of either track-related excuses for delays like the autumn leaf fall making rails slippery or train problems like industrial action by powerful rail unions.
Current disruption due a union dispute on one network, Southern, part of Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), 65 percent owned by Go-Ahead (GOG.L), has attracted so much passenger fury that even Church of England bishops have appealed for a resolution.
Network Rail was set up in 2002 to replace privatised operator Railtrack, which had run into financial difficulty and had been blamed for a series of safety failures that led to several fatal crashes.
Grayling said under his plan Britain’s tracks would remain in state hands, but the RMT union criticised the plans for bringing more privatisation into the rail network.
Reporting by Sarah Young; Editing by Stephen Addison and Tom Heneghan