Keith Williams, the independent chair of the Williams Rail Review, delivered the 2019 Bradshaw Address at the Institution of Civil Engineers. In it, he stated that “the industry needs to fundamentally realign itself to its customers – passengers and freight. Passengers must be at the heart of the future of the railways or they will turn away”
It was, of course, difficult for him to say too much. His report isn’t due until the autumn, when his recommendations will be turned into a white paper. But he did look at how far he has got, and his views on what he has heard so far.
Readers might think that comments such as “what passengers want is a reliable service that gets them where they are going when it says it will” are a touch simplistic and obvious. But, as Keith Williams reminded his audience, it is important to have a common understanding of the start point if the rail review is to be successful. All parties need to agree that there are symptoms which have led to the lack of public trust – then they can acknowledge that some medicine needs to be applied to bring the industry back to health.
Currently, communications are often poor, especially when things go wrong – and passengers expect better from operating companies and Network Rail. In the last few years, performance for many has gone backwards, when it should have gone forwards. Fares and ticketing are confusing. Most people want the basics sorted out.
Of course, these complaints are not exactly new, and there is already a lot of work going on within the industry to respond to them. For example, the Rail Delivery Group recently published proposals on simplifying fares structures, the Department for Transport is consulting on an extension to Pay As You Go, there are improvements coming from the Glaister review into timetabling and Andrew Haines is seeking to instil a culture of customer focus at Network Rail, having completed his 100 day review. But Keith Williams believes more is needed.
Of course, that’s why Keith has been asked to chair the Williams Review in the first place. As he said: “Whilst there have been multiple reviews over the last decade, this is the first full-blown rail review to be supported by government for some considerable time – with a very clear commitment from the Transport Secretary and from Bernadette Kelly and the whole of the department’s executive to encourage myself, the expert panel and my team to bring in root and branch change. That is the context on which we are working.”
Loss of public trust
The railway is quick to boast of its recent successes – doubling the number of passenger while running more trains than at any time in the railway’s history, all on the safest railway in Europe.
But Keith Williams commented that, despite these positives, the industry “cannot ignore some harsh realities: that poor performance, fare hikes, disruptive industrial action and the failures to deliver key infrastructure on time or to budget have contributed to a few dismal years for the railway”.
“It is a hard truth,” he added, “that, despite everything that is being done and all the money that is being spent over time, the rail industry has lost sight of its customers – passengers and freight – and therefore lost public trust.”
The review team has spent the last five months looking into the causes of this situation. They have found that there are many barriers which prevent the industry from improving and modernising its services for customers, including fragmentation and short-termism; a lack of accountability, flexibility and joined-up thinking; conflicting interests within the structure of the railway and the need for leadership throughout the system – where everyone knows their responsibilities and is held to task on performance.
Keith Williams sees his role as being to “realign the different parts of this fragmented industry so they face the same way with shared incentives, with risks (and rewards) sitting in the right places, always with a singular focus on the customer”.
A huge concern
“Many of you have told me,” he continued, “that the current rail model is no longer fit for purpose and that (while justifiably proud of what has been achieved) the industry no longer possesses the same ability or incentive to innovate at the pace at which customers expect – that what worked 20 or 25 years ago no longer works today and will not work in the future. That’s a huge concern in a fast changing world.”
Franchising is one area that he has considered. He described it as “one of the innovations of the railway since the nineteen nineties – driving growth in passengers and benefits to services”.
“But,” he continued, “with this growth, the needs of passengers have changed whilst many of the basic elements of our rail system serving those needs has not kept pace. Too often the current system incentivises short term behaviours and inhibits reform.”
His conclusion was blunt: “Franchising cannot continue in the way it is today. It is no longer delivering clear benefits for either taxpayers or farepayers.”
He was also concerned about the long-term affordability of the railway, stating: “Passengers are no longer willing to pay more when their perception of service is getting worse.”
So what can be done about it? Keith Williams is concerned that the current system – from Network Rail, the Department for Transport and the ORR, to train operating companies and their workforce – does not have the structure and clarity of accountability it needs to properly deliver. He is a supporter of Andrew Haines’s conclusion to his 100-day review that there’s need for “radical change” at Network Rail to boost performance, to bring track and train closer together and to increase devolution, with more localised management.
During his investigation, he has discovered that there is a general frustration within the industry that rules and regulations are holding back innovation and problem solving, while the public side feels that it has to specify more and more to get the best taxpayer outcomes.
There is unlikely to be a ‘one size fits all’ solution which will work for every part of the country and all types of passenger. So Keith Williams and his team will consider all potential answers., from new models of franchising to greater public control of contracts and much more localised decision-making and integrated concessions, where those operating trains and managing infrastructure work together in genuine partnership, acting like a single business focused absolutely on customers.
But, he added, all of this needs to start happening quickly, for the sake of customers.