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UPDATE 2-Britain reforms railways, vows no return to "terrible sandwiches"

* New public rail operator will reunite trains and track

* Great British Railways will aim to simplify services, tickets

* New flexible season tickets will be offered from next month (Adds details on new tickets, Trainline shares)

LONDON, May 20 (Reuters) - Britain will create a new public railway operator called Great British Railways (GBR) in the biggest reform in a quarter of a century of a network plagued by expensive fares, packed commuter carriages and blunders over timetables.

After the privatisation of British Rail from 1994-1997, the rail sector was fragmented into a bewildering array of different companies, fares and bosses - often leaving passengers angry at the poor service.

The first stage of the multi-year plan will see flexible season tickets introduced next month to cater for increased working at home that has become the norm for many commuters during the coronavirus lockdown.

“I want the ticketing to be straightforward and simple and we won’t be going back to the days of British Rail with terrible sandwiches and all the rest of it,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said.

The government said passengers had been let down by the current structure which often made it impossible to identify who was to blame for poor service.

“For too long passengers have not had the level of service they deserve,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement.

The privatisation of Britain’s railways split the trains from the tracks, with private companies awarded contracts to operator services while infrastructure was managed by what eventually became state-owned Network Rail.

The changes led to increased investment and a surge in passenger numbers. But state subsidies also rose despite higher ticket prices.

Under the reforms, GBR will own and maintain rail infrastructure and collect and set fares. It will contract private companies to run services under its banner.

The plans were already in train before COVID-19, but the pandemic has upended commuting, slashing ticket revenue. The government has spent around 12 billion pounds ($17 billion) to keep services running during the pandemic.

The flexible season tickets will offer travel on eight days in a 28-day period.

The government also said it would eradicate uncomfortable “ironing-board seating”, and make efforts to ensure fewer repetitious and annoying pre-recorded announcements on services.

Tickets will be sold by a new GBR website, a change that hit the shares of Trainline, a ticket seller which also runs ticketing operations for some operators.

Its shares were trading down 24% at 0915 GMT.

Train operator FirstGroup welcomed the changes as it agreed new two-year contracts for its South Western Railway and TransPennine Express services.

“We have long called for this transition to a new contract structure with a far better balance of risk and reward,” Chief Executive Matthew Gregory said.

$1 = 0.70 pounds Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Paul Sandle; editing by Michael Holden and Angus MacSwan

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