Passengers and the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail

20 May 2021

The way the rail industry works is probably not top of mind for many passengers catching a train this morning. However, today’s White Paper makes some changes that will soon matter very much to passengers.

Don’t forget pre-pandemic the rail industry was carrying record numbers of passengers. It was taking in more revenue and had a good safety record, all underpinned by healthy Government investment. However, performance was patchy and large-scale change painful (remember the 2018 timetable crisis). Everything seemed to take too long, cost too much and was, with so many organisations involved, complex.  


The pandemic has supercharged the need for change. Passenger numbers have dropped – it may take years, if ever, for numbers and revenue to recover. Government investment will be stretched in all directions. The need to deliver a better value for money railway for taxpayers and passengers is now urgent.


During the Williams review process we did a lot of talking to passengers about what they want to see. A clear sense of accountability came through strongly. Who is in charge of my service? Who is in charge of the whole railway? In a complex, essentially hierarchical and strongly interlinked industry having one organisation clearly in charge of all the network delivery, planning and finances seems to make sense. 


However, what we must avoid is the creation of a production-led, engineering body for whom customers are an afterthought. While all revenue risk now lies clearly with the Government the incentives for rail operators to chase more customers and revenue must still be there. 


So, the process has begun. The chance to create a passenger-led railway now lies in front of us. We must ask at every turn in this review process ‘how will this benefit passengers’. This is the best safeguard to build a more reliable, value for money and attractive railway that more people will choose in future.  


The health crisis will hopefully pass. The climate crisis won’t. People will want and need more sustainable travel choices in future. This review can help underpin those choices. 

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