Transport User Voice – June 2021 – The great rail shake-up

27 May 2021

What does it mean for passengers?

The long-awaited Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail (previously known as the Rail Review) has now been published. It heralds the biggest change to rail since privatisation back in the 1990s.

It confirmed that a new body will be created, called Great British Railways, which will take responsibility for ‘joining-up’ the railway. It will run and plan the rail network, own the infrastructure and receive the money from passengers’ fares. It will ensure stable passenger services and set most fares and timetables. This will bring the whole system under a single, national leadership.

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. 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 makes sense.

The plan also continues the shift away from the franchising model. Great British Railways will be responsible for planning and ensuring that the railway meets targets on things like punctuality, service quality and efficiency. It will own stations and infrastructure, draw up timetables and set most fares.

It will not operate most trains directly but will contract with private companies to operate them on its behalf under what are to be called ‘Passenger Service Contracts’. Importantly, operators will be incentivised to deliver the things that passengers want: punctuality, reliability, staff availability and information. They will also be rewarded for innovation, working collaboratively and growing the market. It is crucial that the focus remains on passengers – we must avoid at all costs the creation of a production-led, engineering body.

Some of these structural changes will take time. So it is interesting to see other benefits for passengers being brought forward with many of these focusing on fares and ticketing. We welcomed news of a new flexible season ticket – something we supported in our report Rail commuting and flexible season tickets. It is good to hear that Pay As You Go contactless and other digital ticketing will be expanded.

It is also reassuring to see the commitment to the ‘walk-up-railway’ and that the Government will ensure affordable walk-up fares remain available and that season ticket fares are capped. These will all help but ultimately there is still a need for a fundamental overhaul of the fares and ticketing system.

There’s also a welcome emphasis on accessibility in the plan with Great British Railways being given a statutory duty to make improvements for disabled people. Transport Focus has also been tasked with looking at accessibility, identifying failures and concerns and escalating issues. This is one of several roles for us set out in the plan.

The chance to create a passenger-led railway now lies in front of us. We will 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.


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