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Most passengers on Britain’s platforms today have not been waiting for the Williams Rail Review or for the Office of Rail and Road Glaister’s report on the summer timetable chaos. They are waiting for trains hoping they will come on time. However, after the summer of 2018 and further fare rises, with more timetable changes looming and on-going patchy performance it is clear something has to change in the way the railways are run, funded and led. Welcome investment is proving extremely painful to bring to life – should it be this difficult?

The Glaister report laid bare the run up to and development of the cringemaking timetable chaos. Blurred accountability, massive over optimism and missed deadlines incubated into a massive crisis. Any passenger reading the report will wonder how the railways run at all.

The Williams Rail Review has to sweep up key themes from Glaister, and the results of the joint Rail Delivery Group and Transport Focus fares review along with all the other reviews that have taken place recently. While the overall issue has great complexity the themes and key questions seem quite clear.

How can the structure, planning, funding and ownership of the industry be changed to help improve reliability, boost capacity and value for money for passengers? The Review must be consumer focused. Some main issues loom immediately:

  • should train and track be brought closer together? If so, how?
  • how much competition should there be in the system and where should it occur? Franchise replacement, on track or in the supply chain?
  • how can industrial relations be improved? More employee involvement?
  • devolution of Network Rail routes and local authorities: how can they mesh?
  • contract lengths: stability versus competition?
  • ownership models: who is best placed to own and run parts of the network?

All these issues must also then be seen through one prism: the user.

Transport Focus last looked at this agenda in 2004 – the last time a wide scale review of the railways took place. Passengers views on the structure of the railways then remain  relevant now:

  • passengers want to see improvements to their rail services – this review must focus on outputs to achieve this. Passengers accept the need for change but the review must not become a distraction or an excuse in itself. Change must be communicated to passengers and phased in gradually.
  • passengers want a clear sense of strategic direction and the assurance that ‘somebody’ has a strategic vision for the railways. A single point of decision-making should exist to determine strategic investment priorities and overarching rail policy. Within this context there is scope for more of the non-strategic decision making to be devolved to national and regional administrations. Funding should follow this.
  • passengers also want a sense that there is ‘someone’ in charge when it comes to the delivery of services to the passengers. A single ‘delivery unit’ – which is separate from the strategic decision-making body – should have the authority to procure top-level train company and infrastructure outputs. Within this structure train companies and Network Rail should be judged and rewarded according to the delivery of services for passengers and not the delivery of services to each other.

Passengers now pay the lion’s share of the industry’s day to day running costs. Their voice should be paramount in the Williams Rail Review process, and Transport Focus is working to ensure this. It has already published one submission to the Review and will shortly publish another when the Board of Transport Focus meets with Keith Williams in public in early March.

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