Virgin Trains has called for a new national rail ticketing system with airline-style fares and reserved seats for every passenger on long distance services, ending the current practice that can involve standing for extended periods.
The firm, which has run the west coast line – the UK’s biggest intercity service, since privatisation in 1997, also proposed that to stimulate competition on long distance routes operators should bid for bundles of station departure slots for train services – as airlines compete for landing slots at airports – rather than franchises.
Virgin claimed fares could fall under the plans it has submitted to the government-commissioned Williams review into the rail system.
Unions said the plans would spell chaos, while the transport watchdog said passengers should retain the right to stand given the demand on peak services.
Virgin said its plans would improve customer experience by abolishing overcrowding and ending complex ticketing, with one fare available at any given time for a seat on a particular service.
The blueprint was drawn up before Virgin was disqualified earlier this month from bidding for franchises – including the competition to run the west coast route from London to Glasgow via Birmingham and Manchester after 2020.
Patrick McCall, senior partner at Virgin Group, said the decision to bar Virgin made its recommendations “more pertinent than ever”. Under its proposals, firms could bid for indefinite rights to operate bundles of departure slots for intercity train services, rather than a particular franchise for a defined period.
“It is clear we need systemic industry reform which is driven by principles and a whole-system redesign. Indeed, it is highly questionable whether any franchises can be let sensibly, or robustly, as things stand,” he said.
Virgin, whose rail services have all been operated in conjunction with Stagecoach, suggested that its reforms could be introduced either on the east coast route – replacing the franchise it lost in 2018 after being unable to meet promised payments to government – or with HS2.
The high-speed trains – which will initially be operated by whichever company wins the next west coast franchise, replacing Virgin – were already expected to be entirely comprised of reserved seats, like TGV services in France.
The airline-style ideas may well chime with the review’s chair, a former chief executive of British Airways. Keith Williams has said it is clear that franchising cannot continue in its current form, and that it was “stifling innovation”. He told the Guardian last week he was still in “absorbing and listening” mode, but expected to deliver recommendations to overhaul the rail system later this year.
He also said he envisaged different models for long-distance trains to the commuter markets and that there was no “one-size-fits all solution”.
He also indicated that ticketing should change: “In the future, do we really see a world of volume paper ticketing, split fares? Passengers look for fairness of fares … I’m not sure they see that today.”
The RMT union said airline-style ticketing would be “an excuse to jack up prices” and Virgin’s proposal for multiple operators was a recipe for chaos.
General secretary Mick Cash said: “It would be an open-access free for all, a mirror of the deregulated bus market with private companies competing for the lucrative work while the rest go hang. The solution is to bring back the railway into public ownership.”
Anthony Smith, chief executive of independent passenger watchdog Transport Focus, said its research showed passengers liked the idea of more competition on longer routes, and airline-style ticketing could be beneficial if there was sufficient competition to keep prices down.
However, he warned: “Moving to seated-only trains is a huge cultural shift. The risk is to reduce the capacity of the network at peak times – and the choice to stand or wait should be the passenger’s, not the train company’s.”