Our view: Putting the rail traveller first

How the Williams Rail Review will shape the future of UK rail travel; widespread reforms are expected to take effect in 2020, in the most radical overhaul to the industry in 20 years.

The UK’s rail network is set to undergo its most radical overhaul since privatisation twenty years ago. That’s because the findings of the Williams Rail Review are being announced this autumn with expected widespread reforms taking effect in 2020.

What is the Williams Rail review?

The review was established in September 2018 following the previous summer’s timetable debacle which caused misery to thousands of passengers. The review’s remit has been to look at the structure of the rail industry and the way passenger services are delivered. making recommendations for reform that prioritise passengers’ and taxpayers’ interests.

The review is chaired by Keith Williams. deputy chairman of the John Lewis Partnership and a former chief executive of British Airways, supported by a panel of experts with expertise in rail, freight, business and passenger interests.

Although the review’s findings are not yet finalised, the Rail Delivery Group is hosting a series of summer workshops with key stakeholders ahead of Keith Williams presenting his full report to the Office of Rail and Road and the Department for Transport.

A view of the rail industry today

The railway in 2019 is very different from the railway as it was following privatisation in some respects, but much the same in others. Despite delivering more trains, investment in infrastructure and the DR15 compensation scheme, today’s railway is not geared for flexibility.

Schemes such as HS2 and the electrification of the Great Western and East Midlands lines, not to mention London’s Cross Rail project are all heavily delayed, so it’s taking even longer for the impact of that investment to be felt.

The summer of 2018 was a difficult season for the rail industry. Apart from the timetable chaos, the Department for Transport (DfT) was forced to take back control of the East Coast route after loss-making Virgin Trains East Coast pulled out.

There was an overall reduction in passenger journeys for the first time since 2008 [source: Office of Rail and Road] and the biggest since privatisations. Journeys fell by 1.4% to 1.7 billion and season ticket sales by 9.2%, although increased home and flexible working, and the rail industry’s failure to provide a fares structure that meets the needs of flexible workers, has played a part in this.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling was widely mocked (and has since become a victim of Boris Johnson’s cabinet purge), and First Group told shareholders it will lose over £100 million running the Transpennine Express franchise. Time for a re-think.

Outcomes of the report

So, what changes can we expect to see as a result of the Williams review, and will these changes put the traveller at the heart of a new-look rail industry? That’s the Rail Delivery Group’s stated intention. “Now is a time for fundamental change, not tinkering around the edges or, worse, inaction. We need to configure the railway around its customers and set it up for a successful future” says Chief Executive Paul Plummer.

Rail industry challenges

Plummer identifies a number of strategic challenges the rail industry must overcome.

  • The health of the economy combined with the need to address the productivity gap and regional disparities that hold UK PLC back.

  • The need to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality. Affordability and sustainability of public services.

  • Increased availability of digital technology and the seismic implications that will have for travel patterns and our wider social behaviour.

  • The UK population is expected to grow to 77 million by 2050, placing massive pressure on housing and other policy areas, including rail.

Proposed changes to the rail industry

Williams is to put forward eight proposals for change to address these challenges. In addition to enhancing the importance of freight to Britain’s economy and providing the skills, resources and rewards to deliver change in the railway, five relate directly to putting the traveller first.

  1. An overhaul of the current franchise agreements will give customers a wider choice of services on longer-haul routes. Ever since privatisation, some operators have enjoyed effective monopolies, with competitors denied access to those markets. Whether it’s quicker more comfortable journeys or faster Wi-Fi, demand would shape the market.

  2. Delivering easier fares for all by up-dating archaic, decades-old regulation to create a fares system which is easier for passengers to use and provides better value for money. This would include the introduction of London TfL-style pay-as-you-go and price caps across commuter markets and reducing overcrowding on some of the busiest long-distance services by spreading that demand more evenly throughout the day. A fully reformed system would be backed up for the first time by an industry-wide best fare guarantee.

  3. The existing rail franchise system would be replaced by customer-focussed, public service contracts. These would be on a concession-based model, but under the control of an integrated transport body. This would bring track and train franchises closer together, all working to the same customer focussed goals, incentivising the private sector to innovate to improve, and rewarding good performance.

  4. De-centralised decision making. For example, in larger city regions which serve commuter markets, customers would benefit from local transport bodies being given more power to design and specify local services.

  5. A new, independent body would be put in charge of the whole industry, taking the politics away from running the railway. Decision-making would be more joined-up, travellers’ needs prioritised and – in theory – greater accountability when performance falls short of the required level.

  6. Making sure track and train are working to one set of consistent, traveller-focussed goals supported by the same targets and incentives. In other words, everyone on the same page – finally.

Everyone has a stake in the railways, and everyone wants to see fundamental change. The opportunity for lasting reform is massive. Hopefully, the size and complexity of the industry will not prevent changes being introduced quickly that put travellers back where they belong – at the front of a unified railway.