he Government has today published its long-awaited review of the rail industry, led by former head of British Airways, Keith Williams.
The Williams Review is being delivered in a very different world to the one in which it was commissioned – passenger numbers have plummeted and the Government is now directly supporting the network, spending £12 billion since the start of the pandemic on helping the rail system through these difficult times.
In this environment, the announcement of a normally headline-grabbing new entity, Great British Railways, has been secondary to the introduction of carnet ticketing in many of the newspaper write-ups. This reflects the major issue facing our railways today – how can we encourage people back to trains whilst ensuring a financially sustainable future?
With Great British Railways as the new guiding mind (or “fat controller” as the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme put it) this will hopefully mean that longer-term strategic issues can now be addressed more easily. This means proactive decisions for the railways to help us to build back better, play their role in levelling up, or contribute towards our Net Zero ambitions are, in theory at least, more easily taken than previously.
How can we encourage people back to trains whilst ensuring a financially sustainable future? Andy Bell
An recent study from the IFS on regional inequalities revealed that spending per head on rail averaged £610 a year per head in London, 5.5 times the £110 average for the rest of the UK. With this in mind, it is key that the Williams Review joins up with the recently announced levelling up white paper. Together, this will hopefully translate to greater investments outside of London and the South East for the ‘left-behind’ regions, as well as many coastal communities with poor transport links.
Where we absolutely do need more clarity following today’s report publication, is on how we transition to these new arrangements. For example, what does this mean for the companies preparing work for Control Period 7? What does it mean for previously published projects in the pipeline? We look forward to seeing more detail on those vital issues for our members over the next few weeks.
Finally, the very nature of devolution in the UK means that across Wales, Scotland and in English regions, there are a variety of arrangements for the railway industry. The Welsh Government has recently taken on responsibility for the Wales and Borders franchise. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government directly runs the ScotRail and Caledonian Sleeper services. This makes it more important that ever that the UK Government considers the regional patterns in investment in transport, which policymakers often look to as an engine to develop new ‘regional powerhouses’.
Regional issues aside, this reorganisation is a fundamental and positive shift for our railways. The return of a, on paper at least, more integrated approach means that our railways will be better equipped to deal with the fundamental issues it currently faces – building back better, supporting levelling-up, and delivering a net zero network. As well as, of course, delivering a new ticketing and fare structure that is fit-for-purpose for a post-pandemic world.
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Andy Bell is chair of ACE’s Transport and Mobility group and UK Director at Ramboll