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Time for a radical rail plan

Former campaigner's picture

The interests of passengers and communities should be central to the Department for Transport’s major review of the railways. Train users and communities deserve a radical plan which delivers more reliable services, better ticketing and accountability when things go wrong.

The DfT’s railway review, to be led by former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams, is in response to mounting problems which have beset the industry in recent years. This has included 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 of one sort or another, and have resulted in varying degrees of reform.

So, will Williams' review be another doorstop report in the dusty library of gradual rail reform, or will it signal a much more significant change? Initial reports suggest the latter, with a brief based not on a stand-alone assessment of the railways, but rather as the next stage of Chris Grayling's Vision for Rail, published last year.

On industry structure, Williams' will be expected to focus on further integrating track and train operations, currently run separately by the franchise holder and Network Rail. Grayling (and many in the industry) has long seen this as a cause of the railway's ills, but so far he has been hamstrung in doing much more than encouraging joint working. Britain's exit from the European Union would give him much more room for manoeuvre. The EU's 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 Grayling 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, potentially creating a franchised version of the pre-1947 Transport Act railway.

Whatever changes to structure are proposed will need to go hand in hand with changes to franchising itself. Here, recent high-profile failures have thrown the spotlight on a system under huge pressure. Unless action is taken to reform the system, the railways risk further instability, squandering billions of pounds of planned investment and further eroding public good will.

To an extent, 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.

The result is a thoroughly unwieldy system. Franchises have become huge in terms of the area they cover, the revenues at stake, and the period they run for. They are too large to be effectively managed by the DfT or for passengers and communities to make their voices heard in decision making.

Change is needed. Franchising needs to move away from the 'one size fits all' model, and to recognise that different parts of the network face different pressures. Selling packages of slots like 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. To guarantee affordability and discourage fanciful passenger forecasts, the DfT should begin the franchising process by stipulating a minimum operating requirement and a budget. Bidders should then be asked to define the service level they could provide with higher reward being given to bids that would boost the local economy and deliver social and environmental benefits.

Williams' brief also contains reference to reform of fares. Here, further tinkering will simply not suffice. Rail companies themselves have already recognised that a radical overhaul is long overdue. Now there needs to be proper reform based not on the interests of the Treasury, but which recognises the railways as an essential public service which deliver major benefits to communities and the economy.

The railways deserve financial support, but in return need a fares system which makes them easier and more affordable to use. That means an end to Byzantine fares structures and the way regulated fares are calculated. In their place 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 conurbations, across-the-board multi modal ticketing and much more besides.

There must not be a repeat of the Fares and Ticketing Review, carried out under the coalition Government. This was launched to great fanfare, but turned out to be the dampest of squibs, recommending little of substance, and delivering virtually nothing.

Finally, none of this should go ahead without the inclusion of rail freight in the Williams review. Railfreight's socio-economic benefits are high and it plays a crucial role supporting port and shipping operators, manufacturers, retailers and construction companies across the country. It makes no sense to exclude rail freight and this oversight needs to be rectified when the full details of Williams' review are announced.

Keith Williams’ review of the railways is long overdue and much needed. In taking on everything from franchising and fares to the structure of the industry it offers the opportunity to recast the role of the railways. 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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