Britain on Thursday unveiled long-awaited reforms of the country's railways, including a new centralised price and reservations system, but insisted it was not backtracking on privatisation started in the 1990s.
Launching a new public body, Great British Railways, whose name has echoes of nationalised British Rail in the last century, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's pro-privatisation government will take much greater control of the sector.
"Great British Railways will integrate the railways, owning the infrastructure, collecting fare revenue, running and planning the network, and setting most fares and timetables," the Department for Transport said late on Wednesday.
The government insisted its plan was "not renationalisation", adding it believed state control "failed the railways".
"Rather, it is simplification… (and) private companies will be contracted to run the trains, with stronger competition to run services," it added.
– Service upgrade –
Britain's rail tracks are already in state hands but the trains are run by mostly private companies enjoying large government subsidies.
But since privatisation of the sector in the mid-1990s, the taxpayer has been forced to take over control of franchises that ran into financial trouble.
The government plans to lift most Covid restrictions from June 21, and said it will offer flexible season tickets as many office workers are expected to continue homeworking.
"I am a great believer in rail, but for too long passengers have not had the level of service they deserve," Johnson said in the statement.
"By creating Great British Railways, and investing in the future of the network, this government will deliver a rail system the country can be proud of."
The announcement comes after the government in September ended the train operators' franchise system that existed for 24 years.
They arrangement was criticised by both train companies and passengers for its inefficiency.
During the pandemic, the state has also handed significant financial support to the badly derailed sector.
– Passenger focus –
Britain launched its "root and branch" review of the rail sector before the pandemic struck, as commuters battled frustratingly frequent delays and persistently high fares.
Recommendations put forward by review chairman Keith Williams, a former British Airways chief executive, have since taken into account the pandemic's impact on the railways.
The latest plan "is built around the passenger, with new contracts which prioritise excellent performance and better services, better value fares, and creating clear leadership and real accountability when things go wrong", Williams said.
"Our railway history — rich with Victorian pioneers and engineers, steam and coal, industry and ingenuity — demands a bright future."
Official data has shown that about 35 million UK rail journeys were made in the second quarter of 2020 amid the country's first lockdown — down from more than 400 million a year earlier.
This was a level last seen in the mid-19th century, according to the Office of Rail and Road.
– Green agenda –
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said Great British Railways — a result of the Williams-Shapps Plan — offers "a modern and green railway" — helping the UK to meet its net zero carbon emissions targets.
The latest train reforms come as Britain looks ahead to two major railway building projects this decade.
Construction on HS2, a high-speed railway connecting London with cities in the north of England, began last year.
Johnson claims that the project — which is to cost more than £100 billion funded mostly by the state and will take years to build — will play a part in helping the country get back on its feet following the pandemic.
Before the global health crisis struck, Johnson saw HS2 as a key infrastructure project aimed at helping drive Britain's post-Brexit economy.
Meanwhile, London's new "Elizabeth" railway connecting the capital's centre with Heathrow airport, is due to open next year after massive cost overruns and delays.