In May, the government published proposals to eliminate the fragmentation of Britain’s railways.
This followed the appointment of Keith Williams to lead a fundamental review of the industry after the May 2018 timetable problems. His report was delayed by Brexit, the general election and the Covid crisis. It was to have proposed the abolition of train operating franchises. However, Covid not only delayed the report, but put an end to the franchises by eliminating their income.
During the government’s review of the report, it became the Williams-Shapps report as the Secretary of State for Transport decided to put his name to it. The report proposed the creation of a Great British Railways (GBR) organisation which will own the infrastructure, receive the fare revenue, run and plan the network and set most fares and timetables. Instead of operating trains directly, GBR will contract with private companies to operate them on its behalf. It will specify service levels and generally will set fares and take the revenue risk. So this brings together the responsibility for cost and revenue.
The Williams-Shapps report explains how this will provide passengers with value for money and provide new opportunities for freight traffic. GBR will make the railways more attractive to passengers with fare simplification, flexi-season tickets and better ticketing systems. GBR will also have a duty to promote the growth of rail freight.
From an engineering perspective GBR offers significant benefits. Within today’s structure, no organisation has the financial, technical and operational authority to oversee the design, investment and management of the whole railway system. Under the present system fleet, infrastructure and timetable strategies are not aligned. For example, on the East Coast Main Line, the overhead line power supply is inadequate and so constrains the provision of more trains and requires some bi-mode trains to run in diesel, rather than electric, mode. Hence the report requires that there must be a long-term strategy that sets out key strategic priorities for the whole rail network for the next 30 years.
Williams-Shapps doesn’t say much about trains, although any long-term plan can only be cost-effective if it includes rolling-stock procurement. The benefits from this approach are being demonstrated in Scotland where the devolved government has approved a rail services decarbonisation plan to deliver a zero-carbon railway by 2035. The plan takes account of all infrastructure and rolling-stock requirements. For example, in one area, the withdrawal of life-expired diesel trains is to be speeded up by a transitional solution of partial electrification and electric units that will be battery powered for part of the route.
There are also benefits for rolling-stock innovation, which short-term franchises cannot justify.
The report also offers better opportunities for staff development and training. It envisages a programme to invest in skills, training and leadership to foster greater collaboration and openness to innovation.
The Williams-Shapps report has much to commend it. The creation of a single organisation that both receives train income and is responsible for all railway expenditure incentivises a whole-system approach which offers engineering benefits that will ultimately benefit the passenger.
However, it requires a strong competent ‘guiding mind,’ with GBR allowed to take decisions on how the railway can best benefit its customers and the nation. The report recognises that GBR needs to be allowed to plan and make the required choices while ministers take funding decisions and set government policy.
Having been delayed by Brexit, a general election and Covid, the Williams-Shapps report has been a long time coming but has been worth the wait.
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