Rail Review – Root & Branch or a Fig Leaf?

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Back in September 2018, the DfT announced that the UK railway network would be the subject of a ‘root and branch’ review, led by a former executive of British Airways and John Lewis Partnership.   According to Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, privatisation delivered:

“Privatisation has delivered huge benefits to passengers on Britain’s railways — doubling passenger journeys and bringing in billions of private investment.”

According to the DfT, the review will focus on these areas:

  • leveraging the commercial model to ensure improved services for passengers and taxpayers, and more effectively balance public and private sector involvement
  • the roles and structures of all parts of the industry, looking at how they can work together more effectively to reduce fragmentation, improve passenger services and increase accountability
  • how the railway can support a fares system that delivers value for money for passengers and taxpayers; and improved industrial relations to maintain performance for passengers

The appointed Chair of the review, Keith Williams said:

It’s clear that Britain’s railway has seen unprecedented growth and is carrying more passengers than it did a century ago on a network a fraction of the size. But it also clear it faces significant challenges.

A clear focus on the passenger side of the business then.  So what happens to freight, and is there an impact on the ‘Northern Powerhouse’?

Well, on 16th July, at a Northern Powerhouse event in Bradford, according to a report of the event in The Guardian: “UK railway needs revolution not evolution, says review chief”.  The event and his comments were also reported in the railway press too, including the observation that the Government should step back from a role in the management of the rail industry.  But, does that also only refer to passenger service operations, and whilst lauding the value of collaboration, and another new ‘arms length body’, he also indicated that there would be no option for Network Rail to control trains.  The observation he chose to make about Network Rail was –

“You don’t create a customer-focused railway by putting engineers in charge.” 

So – do you put sales and marketing people in charge?  Are both sides of this coin needed to ensure a railway that performs for all sectors of its operations, both passenger and freight?  What about integration with other transport modes – let’s say urban and rapid transit, and maybe even buses that key into regional and longer distance rail services?

To be fair though, in his comments at the Northern Powerhouse event in Bradford, he did actually suggest that both the culture and design of the railway must ‘prioritise its customers’ – both passengers AND freight.

Overall, Williams indicated that to achieve its goals, the rail sector needs to focus on 5 key areas:

  1.  A new passenger offer focussed on customer service and performance measures that drive “genuine behavioural and cultural change” with initiatives to give a stronger consumer voice, improved accessibility, and better passenger information.
  2. Simplified fares and ticketing: Williams notes that there have been no substantial structural reforms of the ticketing system since 1995 and this is “holding back innovation and customer-focussed improvements.”
  3. A new industry structure to reduce fragmentation, align track and train more closely, create clear accountability and reduce government influence in day-to-day operations. Williams says a wide range of organisations have expressed support for a new arm’s length body to act as a ‘guiding mind.’
  4. A new commercial model: Williams argues the current franchising model “has had its day” and is holding the sector back, stifling collaboration, preventing the railway from operating as a cohesive network and encouraging train operators to prioritise “narrow commercial interest” over passengers.
  5. Address people-related challenges: a range of proposals on leadership, skills and diversity are being drawn up to support reform and help involve the workforce in the long-term.

It will be interesting to see how this root and branch review delivers that revolution – but we will have to wait until 2020 and afterwards to see if this does deliver improvements.

Of course we will still be importing rolling stock, equipment, rails, signalling systems and ticketing technology from other countries.

I’m not suggesting that this review is not a good thing, and maybe the whole 2018 timetable fiasco, underwritten by a failing ‘privatisation’ of the rail network needs a kick up the …. it’s going to be interesting.  It’s taken almost a quarter of a century to get to the point where UK style rail franchising and fragmentation on such a small network has been chaotic.

If it’s taken this long to work out we need to do something about how ‘conventional’ railways need to work – imagine how long it will take to integrate the benefits – if any – when HS2/HS3 is completed.

-oOo-

 

 

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