Most passenger operators have franchises granted by the Government, but a few have gone it alone with an ‘open access’ licence. These are hard to get.
All freight operators are also open access.
As a passenger, does open access make any difference to you?
Does open access make any difference?
The term goes back to the start of railway privatisation, when the Government thought that there could be a free-for-all on the tracks. Any qualified operator would have had a ‘right of access’. Well, no. There was a very quick change of heart, even before the first franchised operators had started running in 1996, because it was soon realised that numerous open access operators might compete all too well, leaving nothing for the official franchises, many of whom would, it was hoped, soon be paying premiums to the Government. So the ‘right of access’ was soon forgotten, or at least officially postponed to another day – which has yet to dawn.
What is an open access operator?
An open access operator has no contract with the Government. It does not have a franchise. It does need to negotiate with the Office of Rail and Road, which grants the necessary operating licences, and also with Network Rail, which then finds it the ‘paths’ in the timetable – the equivalent of airport slots. On busy main lines, this is often the stumbling block. While an application is in progress, other industry parties can object (they often do), and these usually include any affected franchises.
Assuming that everything is good to go, an open access operator can set its own fares, but only on its own trains. It is also entitled to a slice of all revenue collected at the stations it serves, but in return it must accept ‘any permitted’ tickets which apply on its route.
The rights usually last for some time – ten years is common – but the point is that an open access operator has nowhere to go if revenue falls short. Unlike the franchise-holders, it has no possibility of revenue support from the Government.
Open access operators run only a few trains a day, but because they tend to be small, personalised concerns, they are often very popular with their regular customers.