ENTHUSIASM FOR ‘ROOT AND BRANCH’ REFORM DIMS
COMMENTS FROM Keith Williams in speeches and interviews in mid-July have given an insight into the conclusions his rail review is expected to reach ahead of its publication later this year.
Mr Williams is calling for changes in the ticketing system, which he notes was developed in 1995. He told the BBC: ‘There are 60 million fares that are filed today and that ticketing system just of itself means that it’s been difficult, actually, to bring in… flexibilities… “Pay as you go” across regions and across cities has been difficult to implement because of the fare system that exists today. What we are seeing is third parties coming into that because of the internet world that we live in today; these third parties such as Trainline are making really good impact and a good impetus in terms of ticket change. I think what the review needs to do is to recognise that that can be taken further.’
ROLE OF GOVERNMENT
Key to Keith Williams’ findings is the suggestion that in future government involvement should be limited to overall policy and budget decisions, a significant move away from the micro-management that has developed in recent years. He is also expected to propose a move towards punctuality and other performance-related targets, although whether this would replace the current Department for Transport focus on financial targets is as yet unclear. The precise details of his report are still to be revealed, although a presentation to senior industry executives in early July – which was protected through non-disclosure agreements signed by all present – was reported by attendees to have been‘disappointingly underwhelming’.
Mr Williams is expected to call for more devolution of services, having told the BBC: ‘One of the things we’ve heard and listened to is that there needs to be real accountability in the railways… someone needs to be accountable to the public for the services they receive and that needs to be at a national level.
But what we also recognise is that the role of the regions needs to be emphasised because maybe what’s been lacking in the past is regional input into the national system’.
MAKING FRANCHISING WORK
Despite the decision by the Department for Transport to attempt to continue with the franchising process Mr Williams told the BBC:
‘What we said back in February is that franchising in its existing format needs to change and that’s the result of a number of things. It’s a recognition from the operating companies themselves that actually franchising wasn’t working for them either economically in many cases or giving them the flexibility to run the railway that they wanted to run. Equally from the DfT side it wasn’t giving them a railway that worked for them.
‘So, take both sides together, both sides recognise that franchising needs to change. What we’re looking at, and we still have options on the table, is what do we need to change it to?
But what I will say is that it needs to change to something that works for the passenger.’ However, Mr Williams has said he is not considering ‘giving Network Rail control over the trains, as recent reports in the media suggest’.
Observers have noted a shift from Mr Williams’ early enthusiasm for a ‘root and branch’ reform of franchising to a less demanding approach, with the review chair telling the BBC: ‘I recognise that… current franchising has been more difficult than it has in the past. Franchising has been a success but conditions have changed over time, which has put challenges into the current franchises’.
With a nod to his employers, Mr Williams seems to accept that governments will continue to seek to maintain a level of control, with his conclusion to the BBC: ‘This is a heavily subsidised industry. You know if you look at public money on transport a lot of it goes into rail which is why I say that government still needs a role.’ Tony Miles