Rail franchise agreements are to be suspended to avoid train companies collapsing due to the coronavirus, the Department for Transport (DfT) has announced.
Operators are being offered the chance to transfer all revenue and cost risk to the Government, and be paid a small management fee to run services.
Industry body the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) said it “strongly welcomes” the proposal.
The emergency measures will be in place for an initial period of six months.
The DfT said they will “minimise disruption to the rail sector”.
Allowing operators to enter insolvency would cause “significantly more disruption to passengers and higher costs to the taxpayer”, the department added.
The DfT said passenger numbers have fallen by up to 70%, while ticket sales are down by two-thirds.
Rail timetables have been slashed because of Covid-19.
Anyone holding an Advance ticket will be able to get a refund free of charge, while administrative fees have been waived for season ticket refunds.
The terms and conditions of employment for rail workers will not change.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “We are taking this action to protect the key workers who depend on our railways to carry on their vital roles, the hardworking commuters who have radically altered their lives to combat the spread of coronavirus, and the frontline rail staff who are keeping the country moving.
Weâve announced a support package for train operators during the #coronavirus outbreak, to ensureâ¦— Dept for Transport #StayHomeSaveLives (@transportgovuk) March 23, 2020
🚆Â Key services continue to run
💳Â Passengers are eligible for ticket refunds
🚉Â Certainty for staff
Find out moreÂ 👉https://t.co/q0mwc2Fypf #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/vFIJ7strln
“People deserve certainty that the services they need will run or that their job is not at risk in these unprecedented times.
“We are also helping passengers get refunds on Advance tickets to ensure no-one is unfairly out of pocket for doing the right thing.
“These offers will give operators the confidence and certainty so they can play their part in the national interest.”
The department said the maximum fee given by the Government to train operators would be 2% of the value of a franchise before the Covid-19 pandemic began.
It is intended to incentivise companies to meet performance targets, and will be “far less than recent profits earned by train operators”.
I've just announced an Emergency Measures Agreement to keep the railway running for key workers, plus fee-free refunds for all advance tickets passengers. Find out more: https://t.co/OYAwZSwX2s— Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP (@grantshapps) March 23, 2020
The DfT added that the Government-controlled Operator of Last Resort (OLR) “stands ready to step in” for operators which do not accept the emergency measures.
This would effectively mean nationalising franchises.
The OLR already runs Northern and LNER.
RDG chief executive Paul Plummer said: “The industry strongly welcomes the Department for Transport’s offer of temporary support and, while we need to finalise the details, this will ensure that train companies can focus all their efforts on delivering a vital service at a time of national need.”
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: “Labour backs measures that will keep key workers and freight moving on our railway during this crisis.
“There are very few emergency options available in these most difficult of circumstances.”