Control of trains and track will be brought under a new public sector body named Great British Railways as part of sweeping reforms.
The organisation will own and manage rail infrastructure, issue contracts to private firms to run trains, set most fares and timetables, and sell tickets.
It will absorb Network Rail in a bid to end the current “blame-game system” between train and track operations when disruption occurs.
The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail has been published as a white paper.
What’s the problem?
In 2018, radical new train schedules in the London area and northern England fell apart and caused weeks of chaos. The fiasco exposed the ramshackle arrangements for running the railways.
More broadly, franchise after franchise has collapsed after operators chased impossible financial targets.
Travellers and taxpayers have borne the brunt of this series of shambles.
Passengers simply want reliable trains at reasonable prices with comfort for all. When things inevitably go wrong, they expect timely and accurate information about delays so they can respond accordingly.
The average traveller couldn’t care less how those modest demands are met. The conclusion of Keith Williams: track and operations combined in a single body separated from day-to-day political control is the way forward.
Who’s Keith Williams?
The well-regarded former boss of British Airways. Mr Williams was engaged by the Department for Transport (DfT) to review the railways. His brief: “To recommend the most appropriate organisational and commercial frameworks to deliver the government’s vision”.
That vision is the same as every previous government’s: “A railway that is able to offer good-value fares for passengers, while keeping costs down for taxpayers.”
Mr Williams was also asked to improve industrial relations, reduce disruption and improve reliability. No pressure, then.
The Williams Review was completed on schedule in the autumn of 2019, but gathered dust for a while – as railway reviews are prone to do – because of the general election.
Why his ‘review’ now a double-barrelled ‘plan’?
While Brexit was being done, the Williams Review stayed on the shelf. By the time the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, started to dust it off the coronavirus pandemic had begun.
Passenger numbers collapsed, with travellers locked down and/or warned off public transport.
With the future looking even more challenging, the review has been modified and has been reborn as the Williams-Shapps Plan – whose aim is “to reform Britain’s railways and launch a new era for passengers”.
Mr Williams is happy with the shared honours: as the plan now carries the name of a serving transport secretary, there’s a sporting chance it may be carried out – in contrast to many previous reviews with similar aims.
What’s the big idea?
Mr Shapps said at the launch: “Our railways were born and built to serve this country, to forge stronger connections between our communities and provide people with an affordable, reliable and rapid service.”
Sounding oddly like a Labour transport secretary, he lamented: “Years of fragmentation, confusion and over-complication has seen that vision fade, and passengers failed.”
Mr Williams said: “Our plan is built around the passenger, with new contracts which prioritise excellent performance and better services, better value fares, and creating clear leadership and real accountability when things go wrong.”
Network Rail’s chief executive, Andrew Haines, and its chairman, Sir Peter Hendy, are in charge of structuring the reform.
How will they do that, then?
By bringing back British Rail – more or less. Instead of civil servants at the DfT specifying everything that happens on the railways, decisions will be locally devolved – but with a single controlling mind, separated from the government.
The plan effectively reinvents the Strategic Rail Authority, which ran the railways in the 2000s until the DfT took over its functions.
Great British Railways (GBR), as it is to be known, “will integrate the railways, owning the infrastructure, collecting fare revenue, running and planning the network, and setting most fares and timetables”.
GBR will subsume Network Rail, which owns the infrastructure. It will also take over responsibility for strategy and operations that
The government calls Great British Railways “a single, familiar brand with united, accountable leadership”.
The transport secretary said: “It will become a single familiar brand with a bold new vision for passengers – of punctual services, simpler tickets and a modern and green railway that meets the needs of the nation.”
Local leaders will be “given greater control over local ticketing, timetables and stations”.
The DfT says: “The new model will encourage innovative bidders, such as community rail partnerships who want to bid for the GBR contract to operate their local branch lines.”
Will fares rise or fall?
It is difficult to tell. The plan promises “simpler, modern fares,” with contactless payment across the network backed by systems designed to deliver the lowest prices.
But it stops well short of abolishing the current single-leg, demand-sensitive pricing that many in the rail industry say is necessary to entice people back to trains.
The DfT promises: “Affordable walk-on fares and season ticket prices will be protected.” This suggests the government will fail to take advantage of the slump in rail travel to dismantle the dysfunctional fare structure created by a quarter century of privatisation and some “baked in” guarantees on prices.
While almost everyone agrees fares reform is decades overdue, no government has had the courage to tell the public that, while many train fares will stay the same or fall, some will rise.
Accordingly, the many fare anomalies that encourage “split ticketing” (buying several connecting tickets for one journey) are unlikely to be tackled.
But if the new Great British Railways website is truly passenger-friendly, it will exploit the byzantine fares system for the traveller’s benefit and compute ticket-splitting savings – as well as offering automated compensation when things go wrong.
What about season tickets?
Simultaneously with the publication of the plan, the government is launching the much-promised flexible season tickets – available from 21 June and starting a week later.
The idea is that people who travel only two or three days a week will be able to buy a discounted ticket that meets their needs.
Unfortunately they may not be the panacea many passengers – released from the five-day-a-week commute – might hope.
Between Stoke-on-Trent and Milton Keynes, for example, a day return at peak times costs £191– but a weekly season is only £8 more. There is not much room between the two to offer great deals for a three-day-a-week commuter.
Will everything be painted GBR blue?
No. The current franchise holders have become outsourced operators. While many of the aims of privatisation have fallen by the wayside, Avanti West Coast, GWR, Greater Anglia and the rest will continue in their present form. But they will have “new contracts focused on punctuality and improved efficiency”.
New “Passenger Service Contracts” will include “strong incentives for operators to run high-quality services and increase passenger numbers,” according to the DfT.
The government says: “Great British Railways will contract private partners to operate most trains to the timetables and fares it specifies, with a model similar to that used by Transport for London in its successful Overground and Docklands Light Railway services.”
As demand recovers, operators on some routes, particularly long-distance, will have more commercial freedom.
Will it work?
Money will be the thorny issue. Passenger fare revenue has collapsed from the £10bn per year that previously paid the lion’s share of keeping the carriages on the railroad. Much of that was contributed by season-ticket commuters in south east England, and many of them will be rejoicing in the new-found freedom offered by flexible working.
While some railway practices are rooted in the Victorian era and wholly inappropriate for the 21st century, reforming them and cutting costs has proved remarkably difficult.
Add the need to lure back two-and-a-half times as many passengers as are currently on trains simply in order to return to 2019 levels and the challenge looks daunting.