Published: 15:02, 21 September 2020
| Updated: 10:53, 22 September 2020
The rail industry is prepared to undergo a significant change, after the government extended emergency measures to operators in a move described as an 'end' to franchising.
The coronavirus pandemic has significantly reduced the number of people using the network across Kent, as many commuters continue to work from home instead of travelling to London.
The Department for Transport (DfT) has said operators across the UK have now been moved to 'transitional contracts' ahead of the development of a simplified structure in the next few months.
This means for now the government will pay a management fee to rail companies so they can continue to operate profitably, instead of having to weather the profit fluctuations that could arise with less passengers using the network.
According to Professor Roger Vickerman, from the University of Kent's School of Economics, the announcement is likely setting up for a future rail network where the government has greater control over how it runs.
He said: "There's going to be a lot of argument over the next six to 12 months, over what this future model should be, and my gut feeling is that we'll finish up with something that looks like a management or franchise structure where there's much greater control, and operators are simply paid of the cost of operating a service."
The professor also said the move is going to bring into question issues which have sat at the heart of the UK's rail industry for a number of years, including the fact that many people are unable to pay the expensive fares and resort to other modes of transport.
He said: "You can get some really cheap fares from Canterbury to London if you're prepared to delay your trip until after 10 o'clock and pay in advance.
"But of course that's not the fare that applies to the regular commuter, who's got to be there at a particular time, and of course the commuter is the one who sets the basic capacity of the network.
"That's going to force this fundamental rethink of how we make public transport public, in a way that it has cased to be in recent years."
He added: "Kent is essentially an area of small towns, where the car tends to dominate, and that leads to serious congestion problems all around.
"You can see why people are not using public transport, including myself - I haven't used a train or bus since March, and I usually would quite frequently."
Although some of the blame has been laid at the door of the ongoing pandemic, evidence suggests the privatised rail model had been failing long before the start of the lockdown in March.
Northern was brought under government control in January after years of travel disruption for passengers.
In 2018 a government operator took over the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise, after stripping the contract from Stagecoach and Virgin.
So what does this mean for Kent's rail passengers and commuters?
As far as Southeastern, which is responsible for train services across the county, in the short term nothing much will actually change.
The rail company made an agreement on April 1 to be awarded a Direct Award contract, with the impacts of Covid-19 on the network already factored in.
Other train operators not due to sign another contract have now been moved off their existing long-term franchise agreements today following the DfT's announcement.
Now these operators will move onto the Emergency Recovery Management Agreements which the Transport Secretary announced today.
Southeastern's current contract runs until October 16, 2021, at which point the DfT can decide to extend it until March 31, 2022.
What today's announcement has suggested is there will eventually be a simplifying of journeys across the UK.
This could mean that trips from Kent to another county will be clearer because the complicated network of franchised operators will be more like contractors being paid management fees by the government.
Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, said: "The model of privatisation adopted 25 years ago has seen significant rises in passenger numbers, but this pandemic has proven that it is no longer working.
"Our new deal for rail demands more for passengers. It will simplify people's journeys, ending the uncertainty and confusion about whether you are using the right ticket or the right train company.
"It will keep the best elements of the private sector, including competition and investment, that have helped to drive growth - but deliver strategic direction, leadership and accountability.
"Our new deal for rail demands more for passengers..."
"Passengers will have reliable, safe services on a network totally built around them. It is time to get Britain back on track."
RMT, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, has used the government's announcement as a springboard to call for a full return to public ownership.
Commenting on the government’s announcement, RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: "This announcement should now force the government's hand and lead them to face up to what has been staring them in the face for the best part of three decades, that public ownership is the only model that works and can steer us through a crisis such as Covid-19.
"The Government must now ditch its obsession with the free-market and call to a halt any attempts to reanimate the corpse of rail privatisation.
"The money that would have been hoovered up in profits by the private rail companies should now be reinvested into our railways to ensure we have an affordable, accessible and resilient system fit to withstand other crises such as the extreme effects of climate change that is already having a serious impact on our railway infrastructure."
Today's announcement coincides with a new partnership between Network Rail and regional transport body Transport for the South East.
The project aims to encourage people out of their cars as part of a long-term plan to improve rail services and could include an improvement to cross-regional services including Ashford to Reading and Hastings, as well as High Speed service capacity.