FRANCHISING ‘CANNOT continue in the way it is today’ and is ‘no longer delivering clear benefits for either taxpayers or farepayers’, according to Rail Review chair Keith Williams. Mr Williams made the comments in the annual George Bradshaw address on 26 February. The former British Airways chief executive was appointed to lead the rail review by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling in September, and described it as ‘the biggest review of the railway for generations’.
In his address Mr Williams said the industry is ‘at a crucial juncture where public trust crosses the industry’s ability to deal with change’ and that the railway needs to put passengers at its heart. Despite the industry’s successes, he highlighted the ‘harsh realities’ of poor performance, fare hikes, disruptive industrial action and the failures to deliver key infrastructure on time or to budget, which ‘have contributed to a dismal few years for the railway’. He suggested the rail industry has lost sight of its customers – passengers and freight – and therefore lost public trust.
Discussing franchising, Mr Williams said that while the model has helped drive growth since the 1990s the needs of passengers have changed and ‘many of the basic elements of our rail system serving those needs has not kept pace’ while ‘too often the current system incentivises short term behaviours and inhibits reform’. He also noted the inability to deliver on innovation at the same time as the reputational risk for franchises has increased. Mr Williams also stated that the current system ‘does not have the structure and clarity of accountability it needs to properly deliver’, highlighting a frustration within the industry ‘that rules and regulations are holding back innovation and problem solving’.
He said his team would ‘suggest the most practical measures to fix the system’ but that this would have to be taken in the context of creating clear accountabilities. Mr Williams noted the ‘very clear commitment’ from Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and the Department for Transport ‘to encourage myself, the expert panel and my team to bring in root and branch change’. Going forward, Mr Williams said his team would continue its extensive engagement with the industry, passengers and business, and a further call for evidence was to follow in March. He noted the outcomes of the review will mean accepting trade-offs, such as between capacity and reliability, between more services and resilience or between cost and quality, and would also take time to implement. A Government White Paper setting out these outcomes is due to be published in the autumn.