Posted 27th February 2019 | 9 Comments

Williams sets the stage for rail revolution

Review role is to realign fragmented industry
Franchising no longer delivering clear benefits
Railway industry has lost sight of its customers
► Praise for dedicated, hard-working staff

THE railway industry structure is no longer fit for purpose and needs a ‘fundamental realignment’, according to Keith Williams, the author of the government’s Rail Review.

Its full recommendations will not be published until the autumn, but speaking to an industry audience in London last night, Mr Williams revealed some of the conclusions he has already reached after five months of research.

The franchise system and the various organisations which all play a part in running the industry are also its weakness.

He said: ‘I have learned that if the airline industry is like a game of chess, then today’s complexity in the UK rail industry is more like a Rubik’s Cube.’

The railways were privatised between 1994 and 1997, but some of the changes have since been reversed, particularly the scrapping of Stock Exchange-listed Railtrack and its replacement by Network Rail, which is now a government body.

Mr Williams acknowledged that the industry has achieved ‘enormous success’ in a number of ways since the 1990s, but he also said: ‘We cannot ignore some harsh realities: that poor performance, fare hikes, disruptive industrial action and the failures to deliver key infrastructure on time or to budget have contributed to a few dismal years.

‘I can see that worthy efforts to improve things for customers are all too often frustrated not because of lack of will but because no single organisation owns the problem, or is sufficiently incentivised to take responsibility to drive through change.’

He has also made it clear where his priorities lie: ‘What passengers want is a reliable service that gets them where they are going when it says it will. They want to be treated as part of the railway, like customers. Communications are often poor, especially when things go wrong – and we should expect better from operating companies and Network Rail here.’

He continued: ‘It is a hard truth that – despite everything that is being done and all the money that is being spent over time – the rail industry has lost sight of its customers – passengers and freight and therefore lost public trust.’

Mr Williams did not deal in any detail with the controversial subject of further nationalisation in his speech, saying only: ‘It is no longer helpful or relevant to see the industry purely in terms of ownership, being state run or privatised.

‘Rather, my role is to realign the different parts of this fragmented industry so they face the same way with shared incentives, with risks (and rewards) sitting in the right places. Always with a singular focus on the customer.’

He also had praise for many aspects of the present-day railway, including its very high safety record and the skills of its staff. He said: ‘What a dedicated and hardworking group of employees this industry has. It’s a great benefit for the railways. I will be looking at how we can improve employee engagement in the Review, to get the best from these vital people at the heart of the system.’

What is clear from what he had to say is that franchising – at least the current version – is rapidly reaching the end of the line: ‘Passenger growth can no longer be taken for granted and there is less certainty about how the economy is going to fare in the future.

‘There has been less ability to deliver on innovation. The reputational risk for franchises has increased whilst at the same time returns are less than expected in some areas. These are hardly the conditions we need to develop a modern rail industry to attract future investment.

‘Put bluntly franchising cannot continue in the way it is today. It is no longer delivering clear benefits for either taxpayers or farepayers.’

The Rail Delivery Group has responded to his remarks with broad agreement. RDG chief executive Paul Plummer said: ‘As we’ve long argued, maintaining the status quo on the railway is not an option. This review is absolutely critical to delivering the lasting change that customers, communities and the whole country expects. This is why we are meeting groups around the country, and working together as an industry, to develop our proposals for big lasting change to feed into the review.’

The Department for Transport has also published the first of a series of ‘Evidence Papers’ to coincide with last night’s speech. The first one sets out the evidence on which the review will build its recommendations in preparation for the White Paper in the autumn.

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • John Gilbert, Cradley

    The acid test from this - yet another Report is - will there be any results! AND QUICKLY!

  • david c smith, Bletchley

    "The Customer" seems to be uppermost in William's thinking. Perhaps one thing that needs reforming most is public accountability ; this just doesn't work , it seems, using Central Government command & control mechanisms - it would be better to look to on - rail competition , where feasible, plus local cooperative style direct democracy where there are natural monopolies.
    These models would hopefully gain more direct and effective means of accountability to customers / passengers.

  • Andrew Gwilt, Benfleet Essex

    Well good luck to him then. He could take over as Transport Secretary and Chris Grayling to leave.

  • Chris Jones-Bridger, Buckley Flintshire

    If the customer is genuinely to take centre stage then after safety the service ethic has to be a key priority for the industry. To date the franchising process has had a very patchy record in this regard. Short term and focused on cash flow management the customer has too often been a poor relation. Is it no wonder that performance is at a low level after years when the infrastructure operator has been treated as a property portfolio or an engineering firm? The renewed emphasis on operating in NR is welcome after years of neglect. Time now to smooth or remove the artificial contractual relationships with the TOC's with a common emphasis on performance management as a step to regaining customer trust.

  • david c smith, Bletchley

    The Beeching reports ( yes, there were two !) involved closures, it is true. Some of these were indeed badly judged ( as far as I'm aware, cost / benefit analysis had not got established in 1963 / 1965, the analyses were based on surveys in just one week in April, and the savings that were expected didn't always materialise).
    Nevertheless, a basic principle emerged , namely for railways to concentrate on doing what they are best at, rather than attempting to be an "all things to all people" general carrier.
    I hope the Williams review can similarly discern a basic principle which can guide their recommendations.
    [Just as a matter of record, the second Beeching report -- 'The development of the major trunk routes' in February 1965 -- did not involve closures, or at least it claimed it didn't. Its introduction said: 'The purpose of this study is not to select lines for closure'. In the real world, of course, the routes not selected for development had a dim future at the time, and behind the scenes it was indeed intended that they would go. Heavens -- an official document not telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Who would dream of that happening today?--Ed.]

  • Tony Pearce, Reading

    There are 2 types of passenger, and I recognise when I am fulfilling each role. If I travel through the Swiss Alps or on Eurostar, I always go First Class because I want to be treated like a valued Customer and supplied with drinks whenever I need them, and roomy seats with a window view. When I am traveling into or around London, I know I am part of a 'Mass Transit System' in which we all want to get to our destination asap, and recognise they is no place for 'First Class' extras. Getting the balance right for Operators is difficult. Most passengers want to be treated as 'First Class' but want the cheap fares. They can't have both.

  • Danny Gooch, Swindon

    So will this just be the latest variation of McNulty , where the report says what those who commissioned it want it to say.

    Aligning Franchises with NR routes is all well and good with straightforward things like East Coast or Midland Mainline , but what about franchises which cross multiple boundaries such as Transpennine or Cross Country , or freight traffic ? In the case of Cross Country I can't see a single seat journey being split into multiple shorter segments being an improvement for passengers , likewise with Transpennine.

  • jak jay, surrey

    And what 'enormous success' would that be Mr Williams? the obscene profits made by the likes of Branson,Souter et al or the 100% increase in what the poor tax payer has to fork out in fares and subsidies to Not Work Fail to run the most expensive shambolic system in Europe?

  • king arthur, Buckley

    Rail revolution? I'm still waiting for someone to lift a finger and undo some of the damage caused during the Beeching era. The network will never be able to deliver in its present state, especially for freight customers who are the biggest losers, as ever.