Looking ahead to the Williams Review

Source: RTM Oct/Nov 2018

Darren Shirley, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, takes a look at the government’s root and branch review of the rail sector.

The secretary of state announced in September his intention to launch a review of the railways, chaired by Keith Williams. Since Parliament returned, he has published the terms of reference for this review and the expert panel that will support it, outlining how the review will prioritise “the interests of passengers and taxpayers” and look at the structure of the rail industry and how services are provided.

The interests of passengers and communities should be central to the review. They deserve a radical plan which delivers more reliable services, better ticketing, and clearer accountability when things go wrong.

The review is inescapable given the problems that have beset the industry in recent years: the timetabling fiasco, collapse of the East Coast franchise and fractious industrial relations on Southern Rail.

Sadly, major reviews of the railway are not uncommon. The McNulty Report (2010), Laidlaw Report (2012), Brown Report (2013), Shaw Report (2016) and others have all been called after systematic failings, and have resulted in varying degrees of reform. But to deliver more than another report that props open a door at the DfT, this review needs to signal a much more significant change.

Williams will be expected to focus on further integrating track and train operations. The transport secretary (and many in the industry) have long seen fragmentation as a cause of the railwayʼs ills, but so far have been hamstrung in doing much more than encouraging joint working.

Brexit should give much more room for manoeuvre. The EUʼs Fourth Railway Package is a barrier to so-called vertical integration between train and track operations, overtly requiring that they be managed by separate bodies. Brexit would remove this obstacle, potentially giving the DfT the ability to create franchised train businesses responsible for both running the trains and day-to-day management of the tracks. This would be a massive change.

Rail has been the victim of its own success. In the last 20 years, the expectation of what operators should deliver has transformed from running trains as cheaply as possible to managing an integral piece of national infrastructure in a way that delivers high levels of revenue growth and capacity, while meeting increasingly challenging quality targets and detailed social and environmental objectives.

Change is needed. There can no longer be a ʻone-size-fits-allʼ model to franchising. Selling packages of slots as airlines do might work for intercity routes, busy commuter routes could be run as concessions, while urban rail should prioritise integrated transport across city regions. This is part of what Williams and the review team should get into.

Freight is also important for the review to consider. Rail freight plays a crucial role in supporting port and shipping operators, manufacturers, retailers and construction companies across the country. It makes no sense to exclude rail freight, and this part of the railway needs to be considered alongside how the passenger railway operates.

Williamsʼ brief also contains reference to reform of fares and ticketing. We can no longer have tinkering around the edges on fares. Proper reform is needed that recognises the railways as an essential public service. The railways deserve financial support, but in return there needs to be a fares system that makes the railways easier and more affordable. There must not be a repeat of the Fares and Ticketing Review. This was launched to great fanfare, but was a damp squib, recommending little of substance and delivering virtually nothing.

We need railcards which anyone can use, season tickets which recognise the way we work has changed, compensation for overcrowding and poor performance, proper consideration of distance-based charging, zonal fares in and around major urban areas, and across-the-board, multimodal ticketing.

Williams’ review of the railways is long overdue and much needed. Passengers and communities need to be at the centre of his thinking, creating a radical plan for the future of an integral piece of the nation’s infrastructure.


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