The government is to commission a “sweeping” review of the British rail system in the wake of an error-strewn attempt to introduce new timetables this year. The announcement was made alongside a report by the rail regulator into the timetabling fiasco.
What is the remit of the rail review?
The former chief executive of British Airways Keith Williams will chair the report. Working with a panel of experts, he will examine every aspect of the railway system, with a view to introducing reforms by 2020.
The review will consider ways to improve oversight of the overall system, how to improve the franchise model under which private companies bid to run rail routes, as well as how to improve value for money for passengers and the taxpayer.
Will the review consider nationalisation?
Technically, the Department for Transport has not ruled it out. But the chances of a Conservative government backing nationalisation seem vanishingly small, even if the review panel tables it as an option.
The transport minister Chris Grayling’s statement as he launched the review began by extolling the virtues and achievements of rail privatisation, citing increased passenger numbers and investment.
Nationalisation is popular, however. A YouGov poll last year found that 60% of people think the government should run the railways, with only 25% supporting private ownership.
What conclusions could it draw?
The review will consider ways to bring the people who operate the tracks and the companies that run the trains closer together. The government-owned Network Rail is responsible for rail infrastructure and there has long been a feeling that lines of communication with the train companies are not good enough.
This was among the factors cited in the Office of Rail and Road’s damning report into the causes of this summer’s timetable chaos. One option Grayling has suggested is to set up new regional partnerships between the private companies and local divisions of Network Rail – but it is not yet clear how these would work.
The review is expected to weigh up creating a new beefed-up rail oversight body, a tougher version of the Strategic Rail Authority that operated between 2001-2006, to promote better oversight of the whole rail system. One of the ORR’s chief criticisms was that nobody took charge to prevent the timetabling chaos.
What about the franchising model?
Calls for an overhaul of the franchise system are growing louder. Critics say the existing model encourages rail operating companies to make overoptimistic assumptions about passenger numbers – and therefore the payments they will be making to the government – in order to win contracts.
When the sums don’t add up, the companies hand the route back to the government, which misses out on the expected payments, as has happened twice with the East Coast line. Not only is this embarrassing and costly for the government, but it has made the market less attractive to rail companies, leading to dwindling competition for new franchises.
One solution that has been put forward is to create a new government-owned rail company that could bid against private firms to keep them honest and spur competition.
However, Grayling has suggested that the franchising model is more likely to be adjusted than scrapped altogether.
What does the regulator say?
The Office of Rail and Road was widespread in its criticism of the timetable chaos that affected thousands of passengers this summer. It laid the blame at the door of the DfT, train companies, Network Rail and even itself.
The key conclusion was that, in the regulator’s words, “nobody took charge”. The ORR said that Network Rail did not plan ahead well enough or give train companies sufficient notice of engineering disruption; the train companies were badly prepared and did not keep passengers informed; and the DfT too readily believed the industry’s assurances that everything would be OK. The interim report arrived on the day the rail review was announced, further fuelling calls for a radical overhaul of the rail system.