The Williams-Shapps Review: A new era for UK rail?

By - World Infrastructure Journal

The Williams-Shapps Review: A new era for UK rail?

The long-awaited Williams-Shapps Rail Review has finally been unveiled, setting out plans to reform Britain's railways and usher in a new era of passenger convenience. By bringing the administration of the UK's rail under a single public body, Great British Railways, and simplifying fares, the Review hopes to both stabilise the industry while laying the groundwork for steady and sustained growth.

After 25 years of fragmentation, rail in the UK will be brought back under a “single, accountable national leadership,” as today’s government announcement has unveiled. Great British Railways is now with Sir Peter Hendy and Andrew Haines, the Chairman and Chief Executive of Network Rail to work out how exactly this new body will work in practice. However, it looks set to have a number of powers to run and plan the network, as well as to set most fares and timetables across the system.

Fares and timetabling will be crucial in trying to get passengers back on to the network after a year in which ridership reached as low as four per cent. As working from home looks set to be a trend that is here to stay, long gone are the days of the commuter market and the traditional season ticket. Moving forward, with new consumer habits, flexibility will be key. In a bid to reach the hybrid office-home worker, passengers will be able to buy flexible season tickets as well as more Pay As You Go and contactless options at stations. With a more united approach to improving ticketing, it can only be hoped that passengers will be able to have affordable and digital tickets wherever they are on the network.

The Rail Review also finally gives clarity as to what will replace the franchising system that came to an end last year with the Emergency Recovery Measures Agreeements. Instead, a TfL-style model will be on offer where operators will be able to bid for Passenger Service Contracts from Great British Railways. The hope, in continuing to work with private enterprise but insisting on more robust central control is to “give the railways solid and stable foundations for the future, unleashing the competitive, innovative and expert abilities of the private sector,” while still “ensuring passengers come first. ”  

There have been some concerns however, this could lead to the return of some problems from the days before franchising and Ben Howlett, Managing Director, Public Policy Projects and Non-Executive Director of CPMS Group has explained that it is crucial that the private sector is kept at the heart of this new model: “The pandemic has been devastating for our rail sector and today’s announcement will do a lot to improve performance and efficiency. Whilst flexible ticketing is a step in the right direction, there is a great deal more that the Government can do to encourage passengers back onto the network. However, replicating a system that failed prior to privatisation and calling it by another name, will not inspire the public back onto the network.

“Whilst many express dissatisfaction of Network Rail, a pandemic is no time for a top down reorganisation. There are better things to focus on as we exit a crisis.

“Public Policy Projects rail inquiry will evaluate how the Williams-Shapps Review and the White Paper can be implemented in practice, for the explicit benefit of passengers and industry whilst maintaining value for money. ” 

Broad goals

As PPP's Rail Inquiry has similarly emphasised, the future of the network must also be "cheaper, greener and cleaner" and the Williams-Shapps plan clearly stated this as one of its ten desired outcomes. It outlined that it hopes rail “will spearhead the nation’s ambition to become a world leader in clean, green transport. ” Given the urgency of the 2050 targets, the outlined commitment to utilising rail as the core component of the nation’s transport infrastructure is an encouraging sign – especially considering that rail travel only made up 1.4 per cent of transport emissions in 2019 despite accounting for 10 per cent of journeys in the UK.

The other nine main proposals put forward are varied, but largely focus on ensuring rail better meets the needs of consumers. This includes ensuring that rail is more responsive to the needs of local communities, that the passenger experience is modernised, and that changes are made to the retail aspect of rail travel.

Keith Williams, Chair of the Williams Review, 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.

"Our railway history - rich with Victorian pioneers and engineers, steam and coal, industry and ingenuity - demands a bright future. This plan is the path forward, reforming our railways to ensure they work for everyone in this country."

There are also more economically-centred aims on the list, including finding new ways to work with private enterprise, creating more financially sustainable railways that work with the UK’s broader ambitions of economic recovery, creating new opportunities for freight, and simplifying the structure of the industry. With an ever-growing skills gap in the UK, it was also encouraging to see proposals of delivering and creating a more skilled and innovative workforce.

Steps Forward

While these proposals are a move in the right direction on paper, the next step will be in their implementation. The central government already appears to be heeding advice of needing quick action to return passengers to the railway and has announced that the new national flexi season ticket will be available this summer. Starting on June 21st this could potentially save commuters hundreds of pounds and offer a new option to the flexi-worker. There will also be efforts made to ensure that, as the GBR begins designing services and handing out contracts, local communities will be encouraged to have a say over local ticketing, timetables, and stations – or perhaps even bid for the contracts to operate their local lines as a community rail partnership.

These next steps have yet to be decided and there is long way to go to truly create a railway that works for everyone, across the UK. However, hopefully with this more integrated and innovative approach, "cheaper, greener, cleaner" will be the network's next stop.

Stephen Hammond MP and former Transport Minister, and Deputy Chair, Infrastructure, at Public Policy Projects, said: 

I welcome the publication of the long-awaited Williams-Shapps Rail Review and hope that this will be a stepping-stone to not only recovery but creating the cheaper, cleaner and greener rail network that can meet the needs of our country in the 21st century. At Public Policy Projects we are currently undertaking a major piece of work examining the future of the UK rail industry and it was encouraging to see so many common themes and proposals that will hopefully create the passenger-focused rail revolution that PPP and the industry have been calling for.

Whilst I appreciate the intention of the new Great British Railways body to bring infrastructure and contracting together which could provide a more integrated and flexible approach to rail delivery across the UK. It must ensure the greater role for the private sector that is promised and should seek to build on the success the privatised rail industry has delivered in the last thirty years. The next steps towards creating a rail network for the future can only be achieved by retaining the skills and potential within the private sector and ensuring we have an efficient and value for money system. This body must also challenge the technology resistant and costly practices of previous infrastructure provision. As well as proving that the proposed new Passenger Service Contracts can meet the demand and risk challenges of the next decade and beyond; the new system must ensure that the market and the private sector remain central to demonstrate its ability to deliver a new start and the large-scale necessary change across the network.

The announcement of a flexible and digital ticketing system will be crucial in delivering a more accessible service and enticing passengers to return to the railway. The days of packed commuter trains are unlikely to return soon, and this is a welcome step in opening-up the opportunities of the leisure and off-peak markets.

Innovation across every part of the network will be crucial in improving efficiency and ensuring that the railways can meet the challenges of “green” and “clean”. Rail will play a central role as we head towards net-zero and it is vital that the system is truly equipped to meet the decarbonisation challenge as well as ready to be a more sustainable option for both passengers and freight. Any cost-cutting measures must not come at the expense of quality of the service on offer nor the long-term necessity of innovation and as Network Rail put this review into action, they must create a railway not just for today, but for tomorrow."

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