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Government ‘ends’ rail franchising to keep railways running through Covid-19 pandemic

But taxpayers will continue to cover losses for the next 18 months

RAIL franchising was “ended” today as emergency measures introduced to keep trains running through the coronavirus pandemic were extended by the Department for Transport (DfT).

After 26 years and at a cost of billions of pounds to taxpayers and frustrated passengers, the government says it will abandon its rail franchising system.

But rather than return rail to the efficient public sector, it is to pump hundreds of millions more into the pockets of profiteering privateers by introducing a new contracting system.

Emergency measures introduced in March to ensure services kept running despite the collapse in demand caused by the Covid-19 lockdown cost the government at least £3.5 billion.

Taxpayers will continue to cover losses made by operators for the next 18 months before the creation of a “simpler and more effective structure,” the DfT said.

But Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT transport union, urged the government to “ditch its obsession with the free market and call to a halt any attempts to reanimate the corpse of rail privatisation.

“Public ownership is the only model that works and can steer us through a crisis such as Covid-19.

“It’s time to cut out the middleman.”

Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association general secretary Manuel Cortes lamented that whatever happens, “the privateers always win.”

He said: “The Tory government must stop dithering about the future of our railways. Only public ownership will cure its many ills.”

Unite national officer for rail Harish Patel accused ministers of failing to act decisively by allowing firms to continue to profit by receiving huge amounts of taxpayers’ money.

Shadow rail minister Tan Dhesi said it was completely unacceptable that taxpayers will continue to pay hundreds of millions of pounds to private companies under the new plans.

“It’s time to put passengers before profit and bring our rail franchises back into full public ownership,” he said.

Train drivers’ union Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan said the extension was welcome in order to avoid “cliff-edge changes during a pandemic.

“Public ownership of Britain's railway is a long-term strategic goal but, for now the extension of the EMAs is a pragmatic solution,” he argued.

Unsurprisingly, rail privateers welcomed Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ announcement.

Paul Plummer, chief executive of the privateers’ Rail Delivery Group, said that the decision would “help regrow the market for train travel, which is good for economic recovery and the public finances.”

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