It’s been a few months since the long awaited Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail was published, with some early signs of reform already being introduced, such as the recent launch of new flexible tickets for commuters.
Whilst the report has generally been welcomed by the industry there is some concern - particularly from the unions - that the reforms don’t go far enough or that the Department of Transport (DfT) “now faces an extremely challenging and uncertain environment in which to implement its proposed reforms” (The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in its “Overview of the English Rail System” report published on 7th July 2021). Whatever the view, it’s agreed by all that change is needed to ensure that we have a network fit for the future.
The proposed reforms herald the biggest change in UK railways in over 25 years and aim to bring the fragmentation of the system to an end with the creation of a new public body, Great British Railways, which will own the infrastructure, receive the fare revenue, and run and plan the network – spelling an end to the model of rail franchising which even the DfT called “flawed”.
The new model, which will build upon the approach taken by TfL Overground services, Merseyrail and many railways across Europe, including in Germany and Sweden, will use a concession model to contract with private partners to operate the trains. Great British Railways will specify the timetables, branding, most fares and other aspects of the service, and agree a fee with the competitively-procured passenger service operator to provide the service to this specification.
National Rail Contracts will succeed the emergency agreements currently in place and will act as a bridge to the new Passenger Service Contracts which will come into force in two years time and will include incentives to drive revenue growth.
Whilst the Williams review is at pains to highlight the progress and improvement made to Britain’s railways under privatisation, the green credentials of rail and its safety record, it paints a picture of complexity which it believes will not support the future needs of the country because no leader or organisation at local, regional or national levels has responsibility and accountability for making the whole system work.
Indeed, the Williams review found that the railways are not getting the basics right; trains not running on time, the challenge of buying the right ticket at the right price and a railway that wasn’t accessible and inclusive for all those who want to travel. As a result, passengers often complained that trains were late, overcrowded and that journeys were stressful.
The review states that “urgent and radical change is needed to help the railway become more customer focused and financially sustainable, working in the national interest as a public service”. The hope is that a simpler structure and clearer leadership will make decision-making easier and more transparent, enabling the railways to be more efficient with the value generated being shared with the customers of the railways and the taxpayers.