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Williams-Shapps – An engineering perspective

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Most readers will by now be aware of the Williams-Shapps report, published in May. This proposed a Great British Railways (GBR) organisation which will absorb Network Rail and many functions of the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) and Department for Transport (DfT). The report was to have proposed the ending of train operating franchises. However, the Covid crisis not only delayed the report, but resulted in franchises being replaced by Emergency Measures Agreements.

GBR is to 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 let contracts to private companies to operate trains to specified service levels. GBR will generally set fares and take the revenue risk. Thus, GBR has the responsibility for both cost and revenue.

Williams-Shapps rightly stresses the importance of providing passengers and freight customers with the service they require. It explains how the unified GBR organisation will provide passengers with a service that offers value for money and will provide new opportunities for freight traffic. Much is said about making the railways more attractive to passengers including fare simplification, flexi-season tickets, a national extension of Pay as You Go and integrated ticketing. GBR will also have a growth target for rail freight which it will have a statutory duty to promote.

Yet, few rail engineers have direct contact with the ultimate passenger or freight customer. For them, the question is how they can best support GBR and how will the Williams-Shapps proposals help them deliver a better railway. In this feature, Rail Engineer considers the engineering implications of the Williams-Shapps plan, some of which leave key questions unanswered, particularly in respect of rolling stock.

A guiding mind

The Williams-Shapps report recognises that the current rail sector organisations have differing incentives that do not always serve the interests of the passengers and freight customers. Furthermore, 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.

It envisages that GBR will provide the required ‘guiding mind’ with Ministers taking key funding decisions and using strong levers to set direction and pursue government policy. The report recognises that these powers will need to be used flexibly to allow GBR to plan and make the required choices.

The recent deferral of the May 2022 East Coast timetable to May 2023, due to inadequate power supplies and an over-ambitious service provision, illustrates the shortcomings of the present system which lacks a railway system plan that aligns fleet, infrastructure and timetable strategies.

To address this issue, the report proposes a long-term strategy that sets out key strategic priorities for the whole rail network for the next 30 years. It advises that the first step is a ‘Whole Industry Strategic Plan’ that will be completed in 2022. The report advises that this will include the required major changes to track, infrastructure and on-train systems required for programmes such as digital signalling.

Rolling stock

A significant omission from this thirty-year plan is rolling stock procurement which can only be done in a cost-effective manner if it is aligned with the decarbonisation plan. Moreover, the need to replace rolling stock may determine the infrastructure strategy. For example, in Scotland, which already has such a long-term strategy, the urgent need to replace life-expired trains resulted in a transitional strategy of partial electrification and battery EMUs on some lines.

At a recent press conference, Rail Engineer raised this issue with Network Rail’s CEO, Andrew Haines who answered that “we are doing the work to address this question including a whole system (rolling stock and infrastructure) decarbonisation strategy and have a rolling stock replacement strategy.”

Williams-Shapps does not say much about trains, though it mentions “ironing board” seats on four occasions. Many of the complaints about these seats concern the InterCity Express Programme and Thameslink trains that were directly procured by the DfT rather than by train operator franchises. It commits GBR to bringing forward replacement cycles to eventually remove such seats, no doubt at significant cost.

Class 385 arrives at Glasgow Queen Street.

The report does “not assume any direct change to the current industry model for train procurement.” Yet this is not possible as this model requires the now-defunct franchises to procure trains. It seems likely that GBR will procure trains in future and, in doing so, will take a strategic view to take account of, for example, rolling stock cascades, electrification programmes and the need to avoid ‘boom and bust’ train procurement. This has to be an improvement.

It also seems likely that GBR will consolidate leases for train fleets which are currently split between different train operators. Whilst the report envisages that leasing companies will continue to undertake heavy maintenance, it is not clear whether the train operator’s Passenger Service Contracts will include other maintenance or whether GBR will provide operators with maintained trains.

Infrastructure work

The creation of GBR offers significant benefits in respect of engineering access. This is currently governed by Schedule 4 payments to train operators to compensate for the financial impact of planned service disruption. With GBR responsible for both train revenue and infrastructure costs, there is the opportunity to develop engineering access arrangements that balance the complex trade-off between train revenue and customer needs against the engineering cost of different access windows. Optimising access in this way requires consideration of many factors, often on a case-by-case basis, which cannot be done under the relatively crude Schedule 4 regime.

Another key benefit from the creation of GBR is that it should provide a whole-system approach to ensure trains and infrastructure are optimised to deliver the timetable. This would include the optimisation of loops and turnout speeds, identification of key line speed improvements, and specification of minimum passenger train acceleration and minimum power to weight ratios for freight trains.

At various locations electrification is required to ensure the required train performance to optimise the timetable. It is therefore good to see that Williams-Shapps recognises the requirement for an electrification programme and, in particular, the need for short infill freight electrification projects, for example between Felixstowe and Ipswich. It states that electrification is required to decarbonise the network and notes its ‘sparks effect’ that attracts new passengers and freight customers to rail. It does not, however, mention the significant capacity benefits that electrification provides.

Another benefit of a systems approach is the national accessibility strategy promised by the report. This will provide a joined-up approach to accessibility, including getting to, from and around stations and on and off trains, including level boarding. It will introduce new, consistent standards to ensure passengers know the level of service to expect wherever and whenever they travel.

Whilst Williams-Shapps offers significant benefits in respect of rail infrastructure, some of its impact is exaggerated. The report envisages that Great British Railways will have more purchasing power and provide a new focus on the escalations in cost, gold-plating and over-specification that have occurred since privatisation. It envisages that “contracts will be modernised, with complex approval processes and supplier frameworks overhauled, and new ways of working explored to improve pace and value for money.”

2nd class seats DfT-specified IEP trains have been the subject of much criticism.

Yet much of this could be done under present arrangements. Network Rail already spends about £8 billion per annum on infrastructure contracts and the company has already recognised the need to improve product approval and for more pragmatic standards. Nevertheless, there is clearly a requirement to develop and deliver infrastructure projects in a more cost-effective manner. As we describe in issue 189 (Mar-Apr 2021), Project SPEED has made a good start in this respect.

Williams-Shapps also notes how better visibility of investment pipelines will foster easier delivery of projects. However, publicising planned enhancement projects is already in the gift of the DfT and, as the Railway Industry Association (RIA)’s enhancements clock shows, it is now almost 700 days since the Department’s Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline was last updated.


Williams-Shapps has much to say about innovation. It considers that a lack of innovation and incentive to modernise is partly responsible for the lack of cost effectiveness. Yet it does not acknowledge the recent work to drive innovation and mentions developments that are already in place. For example, the use of data sandboxes and remotely piloted drones to monitor track conditions.

Rail Engineer has featured many rail innovations and has reported on RIA’s annual innovation conference which this year was a virtual event as reported in issue 190 (May-June 2021). Over the years we have described RIA’s Unlocking Innovation programme, the development of the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN) which offers effective collaboration between industry and university research centres. We have also reported on the development of Network Rail’s research portfolio which is supported by challenge statements to inform industry of the company’s research requirements.

Our report on this year’s RIA innovation conference described how this R&D portfolio is worth £245 million for CP6 with £85 million already spent. Network Rail’s R&D investment to date has delivered benefits of around £300 million with a 20% rate of return. However, the feature also reported how Network Rail’s Andrew Haines had noted that fragmentation had produced perverse incentives which makes it difficult to innovate. This point is also made in the Williams-Shapps report. In this respect there is a particular issue with older rolling stock which the creation of GBR should resolve.

In 2018, Rail Engineer reported how Voith had demonstrated that a pilot scheme to replace a class 158’s fluid flywheel transmission with the company’s hydro mechanical transmission offered significant fuel savings which offered a four-year payback. However, the company received no orders for its fuel-efficient transmissions as the companies concerned did not get the benefit of fuel savings over the vehicle’s remaining life. This will not be an issue when GBR assumes ultimate responsibility for lifetime rolling stock costs.

This example is particularly relevant to the rail decarbonisation programme which will require many existing vehicles to become more fuel-efficient pending completion of the electrification programme.

Voith’s DIWARail transmission installed on a class 158.

Passenger improvements

The Williams-Shapps reports notes that half of all national rail journeys in Britain use paper tickets and promises a revolution in passenger fares and ticketing. This will require new ways to pay through contactless Pay As You Go for commuters with digital tickets for regional, long-distance and frequent journeys. Its commitment to modernise and improve the passenger experience will require GBR to work with its partners to adapt to changing passenger needs.

The report envisages that the Great British Railways’ website and app benefit from the best-in-class providers today, including international partners. Open data compiled by GBR and its partners will be introduced for which a new Rail Data Service will provide a common framework and standards. This will provide new opportunities to integrate rail data into passenger-facing apps and connect data across systems.

Such services will require GBR to support the government’s ambitions for 5G connectivity. GBR will be required to work with technology businesses to ensure that passengers are digitally connected to improve their on-board experience. The railways’ digital infrastructure is to be expanded through the recently announced Project Reach initiative in which telecoms partners will build new communications networks along the railway in return for the right to commercially exploit it under a long-term concession agreement.

As a first step, a public-private partnership between Network Rail, Govia Thameslink Railway and Cellnex will introduce full and fast mobile connectivity from Brighton to London. This will give passengers a completely connected journey by 2023 including in stations, tunnels and cuttings, and will also boost connections for local communities along the route.


The report rightly points out that the current railway structure makes it difficult for staff to understand how their role relates to others in different parts of the industry. This impedes effective leadership at both organisational and individual levels as staff often can only consider their part of the sector. It also limits the opportunity for whole-system, efficient solutions to emerge.

Nfc contactless payment with mobile phone at metro station

Williams-Shapps envisages a sustained programme across the rail industry to invest in skills, training and leadership to foster greater collaboration, openness to innovation and so support long-term productivity improvements. The report commits to a new approach that supports people at every career stage to improve customer service and make rail more attractive to new and experienced talent from outside the sector, including apprenticeships.

The intention is to build on the Connected Leaders Scheme, launched in 2020, which is beginning to equip future leaders with a deeper understanding of customer needs and a better cross-sector perspective. Another commitment is the establishment of a virtual leadership academy following the example of the Roads Academy, which supports leadership within the roads sector.

This academy will bring together commercial, technology and passenger service experience and draw on best practice and external perspectives. It will be designed in close collaboration with leaders from across the railways.

GBR will also develop a system-wide workforce plan to enable a strategic assessment of current and future needs. This will build on examples of good practice across the sector, such as the Train Drivers Academy, launched in 2019 by the Rail Delivery Group to increase the supply and diversity of qualified drivers.

Illustration of the interior of Birmingham Curzon Street Station.

A new future

The Williams-Shapps report has much to commend it. The creation of GBR as a single organisation that both receives train income and is responsible for all railway expenditure incentivises a whole system approach. This should ensure that everyone across the sector is working to common goals.

This whole system approach also offers clear engineering benefits which will ultimately benefit the passenger. These include a focus that should ensure infrastructure and rolling stock is fit for the required timetable, optimised engineering access, incentivised innovation, a long-term integrated infrastructure and rolling stock strategy, and better cross-sector skills training.

The proposal for a thirty-year strategic plan is to be welcomed. As shown by the ‘boom and bust’ approach to electrification and rolling stock procurement, short-term funding decisions inevitably result in additional costs in the long term.

Interchange station internal concourse illustration.

All this 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 whilst Government ministers take funding decisions and set government policy. It is essential that politicians respect the requirement for GBR to determine how best to deliver policy within the required funding.

Having been delayed by Brexit, a general election and Covid, the Williams report (now Williams-Shapps) has been a long time coming. It has certainly been worth the wait.

David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEM
David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEMhttp://therailengineer.com

Rolling stock, depots, Scottish and Russian railways

David Shirres joined British Rail in 1968 as a scholarship student and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Sussex University. He has also been awarded a Diploma in Engineering Management by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

His roles in British Rail included Maintenance Assistant at Slade Green, Depot Engineer at Haymarket, Scottish DM&EE Training Engineer and ScotRail Safety Systems Manager.

In 1975, he took a three-year break as a volunteer to manage an irrigation project in Bangladesh.

He retired from Network Rail in 2009 after a 37-year railway career. At that time, he was working on the Airdrie to Bathgate project in a role that included the management of utilities and consents. Prior to that, his roles in the privatised railway included various quality, safety and environmental management posts.

David was appointed Editor of Rail Engineer in January 2017 and, since 2010, has written many articles for the magazine on a wide variety of topics including events in Scotland, rail innovation and Russian Railways. In 2013, the latter gave him an award for being its international journalist of the year.

He is also an active member of the IMechE’s Railway Division, having been Chair and Secretary of its Scottish Centre.


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