Long-distance rail routes should become reservation-only services, doing away with the need for standing, Virgin has proposed.
Virgin, which runs trains on the West Coast mainline in a joint venture with Stagecoach, wants services to be operated along similar principles to air routes, arguing that passengers would benefit.
The ideas are being proposed as part of Virgin’s submission to the government-commissioned rail review, launched in the wake of major disruption after timetable changes last year.
But the RMT union said they would lead to a “de-regulated free-for-all” and “total chaos” for passengers.
Under current rules, train operators typically accept walk-on fares, meaning they have no control over the number of people boarding a particular train, unless it is deemed unsafe.
They are also obliged to stick to timetables which result in trains being run even when demand is low, while at other times they are so packed that passengers are forced to stand for hours.
Virgin said a reservation-only system, guaranteeing every customer a seat in normal operations, would mean standing is “all but abolished”.
It also said that airline-style ticketing should replace “today’s complex and confusing mix of tickets”.
Under Virgin’s proposals, there would be one fare available at any given time for any one service.
That would mean so-called dynamic pricing, with higher prices for more popular trains and lower prices for less popular trains.
Virgin also argued for a new franchising model under which train operators bid to run bundles of train services on the same route, saying this would allow customers greater choice.
“The reforms would also help drive better value for money, increasing the benefits for taxpayers, by ensuring operators were incentivised to sell all the seats on trains and invest over the long term,” Virgin said.
But RMT general secretary Mick Cash responded: “What Virgin are proposing is a de-regulated free-for-all where private train operators slug it out on the most lucrative routes on a slot-by-slot basis.
“It would lead to total chaos with passengers trapped in a transport nightmare of escalating fares where prices rise by the minute according to availability.
“Virgin are actually proposing a version of the broken rail franchising model pumped on steroids when what is really needed is an end to this nonsense and public ownership of our railways.”
The rail review is being chaired by former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams. His inquiry will conclude in the autumn.
Virgin Group’s submission was written before the recent decision by the Department for Transport (DfT) to disqualify Virgin Trains’ bid to continue operating West Coast Main Line services due to a row over pensions.
Patrick McCall, senior partner at Virgin Group, said the recommendations were “more pertinent than ever given this news”.
“Keith Williams has said that franchising cannot continue as it is now, and it is clear we need systemic industry reform which is driven by principles and a whole-system redesign,” Mr McCall said.