The long-awaited Williams Review, set up in 2018 to review the structure of the railways after a chaotic timetable change, the failure of some franchises and the clear absence of accountability, is now complete, after several delays, and its report is being turned the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, which will form the basis of a government White Paper.
Under the plan, a new public body, Great British Railways, will integrate the railways, owning the infrastructure, collecting fare revenue, running and planning the network, and setting most fares and timetables.
Great British Railways will run a truly passenger-focused railway, underpinned by new contracts that prioritise punctual and reliable services, the rapid delivery of a ticketing revolution, with new flexible and convenient tickets, and long-term proposals to build a modern, greener and accessible network. It will simplify the current mass of confusing tickets with new flexible season tickets, and a significant roll-out of more convenient Pay As You Go, contactless and digital ticketing on smartphones.
A new Great British Railways website will sell tickets and a single compensation system for operators in England will provide a simple system for passengers to access information and apply for refunds.
Announcing these plans, the Department for Transport (DfT) was at pains to point out that this is not renationalisation, which it continues to believe failed the railways. Rather, it is simplification, with Great British Railways acting as the guiding mind to coordinate the whole network.
There will remain a substantial, and often greater role, for the private sector. Great British Railways will contract private partners to operate most trains to the timetables and fares it specifies, with a model similar to that used by Transport for London in its successful Overground and Docklands Light Railway services.
New Passenger Service Contracts will include strong incentives for operators to run high-quality services and increase passenger numbers. They will not be one-size-fits-all: as demand recovers, operators on some routes, particularly long-distance, will have more commercial freedom. Affordable walk-on fares and season ticket prices will be protected.
Welcoming the plan, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “I am a great believer in rail, but for too long passengers have not had the level of service they deserve.
“By creating Great British Railways, and investing in the future of the network, this government will deliver a rail system the country can be proud of.”
Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps added: “Our railways were born and built to serve this country, to forge stronger connections between our communities and provide people with an affordable, reliable and rapid service. Years of fragmentation, confusion and over-complication has seen that vision fade, and passengers failed. That complicated and broken system ends today.
“The pandemic has seen the government take unprecedented steps to protect services and jobs. It’s now time to kickstart reforms that give the railways solid and stable foundations for the future, unleashing the competitive, innovative and expert abilities of the private sector, and ensuring passengers come first.
“Great British Railways marks a new era in the history of our railways. It will become a single familiar brand with a bold new vision for passengers – of punctual services, simpler tickets and a modern and green railway that meets the needs of the nation.”
Keith Williams, Chair of the Williams Review, commented: “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.”
The White Paper based on the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail contains 10 key strands:
- Modern passenger experience – Passengers must receive high-quality, consistent services. More accessible, reliable, well connected journeys and a new customer offers at stations and on trains.
- Retail revolution – There will be simpler, modern ways of paying for travel and straightforward compensation. Clear prices, digital ticketing and flexibility will underpin this transformation.
- New ways of working with the private sector – Passenger Service Contracts will replace franchising. New opportunities for innovators, suppliers (including small and local partners) and funders will be created through streamlined contracts and more contestability.
- Economic recovery and financially sustainable railways -The railways are a public service, paid for by taxpayers and passengers. Bringing together responsibility for cost and revenue in Great British Railways will ensure the railways become more financially sustainable.
- Greater control for local people and places – Railways will be more responsive to the needs of local communities. Empowered, locally-led teams will support improvements and be accountable to the people and places they serve.
- Cleaner, greener railways – Railways will spearhead the nation’s ambition to become a world leader in clean, green transport. Decarbonisation, greater biodiversity and improvements in air quality will ensure rail is a cleaner public transport network.
- New opportunities for freight – National co-ordination offering greater flexibility and responsiveness will create new opportunities for rail freight. Modern contracts will ensure the sector continues to keep goods moving and delivering vital economic and environmental benefits.
- Increased speed of delivery and efficient enhancements – Restoring lost rail links and accelerating the delivery of critical upgrades to the network will support new economic growth and connectivity across our nations and regions.
- Skilled, innovative workforce – A culture of collaboration, strengthening leadership and enhancing the skills of people working across the sector are vital to delivering a better service for passengers. High-value and fulfilling opportunities for staff will ensure they can best serve the needs of customers.
- Simpler industry structure – A ‘guiding mind’ for the system delivered by ‘Great British Railways’, which will be organised around regional railways. People, culture and incentives will focus on serving all customers, with clear accountability, better decision-making and a single financial system. A 30-year strategy will enable the sector to transform and modernise efficiently.
New National Rail Contracts will be announced later this year, which will last for two years and act as a bridge to reform.
Great British Railways will be tasked with driving significant efficiencies – reducing complexity and duplication, increasing flexibility, changing working practices and making it easier and cheaper to invest. The government believes that reform is the only way to protect services and jobs in the long term.
In the short and medium term, the DfT will work closely with the sector on measures to encourage passengers back to rail, after Covid-19 has caused deep, structural challenges to the railway, with use still far below pre-pandemic levels.
To reflect changes in the traditional commute and working life, the government has announced that a new national flexi season ticket will be on sale this summer, with potential savings of hundreds of pounds a year for two and three-day-a-week commuters. Tickets will be on sale on 21 June, ready for use on 28 June.
The new Passenger Service Contracts will also help to build a more financially stable industry. By removing barriers to new market entrants, including by no longer basing competitions on complex and uncertain revenue forecasts, private operators will be challenged to provide a competitive and customer-focused offer, delivering greater value-for-money for the taxpayer.
Network Rail, the current infrastructure owner, will be absorbed into the public body to bring about single, unified and accountable leadership for the national network. Ending an opaque, blame-game system, GBR will provide a single, familiar brand – updating the famous National Rail double arrow – responsible for better services.
Overall strategic direction for the railway, including infrastructure investment and fares strategy, will be set by government, with the first ever 30-year plan for the railways. This will set out key investment and strategic decisions to support economic growth, levelling up and the environment, and ensure money is targeted and used efficiently to deliver upgrades. This will help ensure transformative schemes like reversing Beeching cuts are prioritised.
REACTION: Read the industry’s reaction to the release of the Williams Review and the setting up of the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail.