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To decarbonise our railways we need more privatisation

Rather than nationalisation, conservatives should embrace competition to help revitalise Britain’s railways and get more of us moving by train.

Sam Payne, Climate Programme Manager at CEN

Despite being the nation with the first public railway, Britain’s rail network is now in a poor condition, with low passenger satisfaction and high costs - both to the public purse, and consumers. To keep us on track for reaching net zero by promoting less carbon-intense travel, we need to make travelling by rail more attractive, and encourage more people to make the switch from hopping in their car or onto a plane, to getting onboard a train. Given surface transport accounts for 27% of the UK’s emissions, there is a clear potential for electrified trains to play a role in bringing this down.

Bringing more competition to the UK rail sector could provide the mechanism to do this. At present, to fly from London to Glasgow, you’ve got the choice of three different airlines. These offer varying luggage options, meals and inflight WiFi at different price points. Meanwhile, by train, you only have one option. By increasing competition on the rail, we can make it easier for customers to pick and choose based on their journey requirements. Introducing competition has worked well in Europe, driving down rail fares by up to 60%, increasing passengers by 40% and, in some cases, halving state subsidies. In the UK, we only have three long-distance domestic open access operators - fully commercial operators that take on the entire financial risk and pay a charge to use the rail network. Most notably, Lumo, on the East Coast Main Line operates as a challenger to the franchised (and also state-run) LNER. Customers are free to choose on journeys from London to Edinburgh whether they’d prefer the benefits provided with either LNER or Lumo, for a competitive price.

There are of course, further benefits to increasing competition. Train operators will be encouraged fix areas of poor service, as if not, passengers will change operators. A greater number of operators means more track access charges being paid to Network Rail, which can be invested into improving rail infrastructure. Lower fares will come as a result of operators competing for passengers on the same route. These measures in turn will drive passenger numbers on the rail network up, cutting emissions from more polluting transport methods such as cars and planes.

To bring more competition to rail, the government should ensure open access operators are encouraged to enter the UK market. Network Rail should be given a duty to actively prioritise open access operator applications where there is spare capacity, helping to make it as easy as possible for more players to enter the market.

Rather than relying on the state, which generally doesn’t run services most efficiently, conservatives should make it easier for us to switch from flying or driving to using the train by embracing the power of the market.


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