UK railway needs revolution not evolution, says review chief

Independent chair says franchise system no longer credible and state needs to step back for ‘complete overhaul’

The government should take a “step back” from the UK railway, which could potentially be run by a new body, said the independent chair of the rail review.

The former British Airways boss Keith Williams said a fresh structure was required, and warned that “simply tinkering at the edges” would not be credible. He added that rail franchising had “had its day”.

Williams said he would deliver final proposals in the autumn for “revolution not evolution”.

Speaking at a Northern Powerhouse event in Bradford, Williams indicated that overhauling the industry structure, its fares system, customer service and franchising were all part of his thinking.

Williams said the immediate circumstances that had prompted transport secretary Chris Grayling to commission the review last year – the timetable chaos, budget overruns and delays on major investment projects, plus the collapse of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise – were “all symptomatic of deeper, more fundamental issues”.

He said the railway was “not set up to be flexible, lead or adapt to major change”.

Williams said that the scale of change necessary would mean a different role for the Department for Transport, adding that “the government will have to step back from the railway”.

He hinted at further devolution for a railway “anchored in the regions and communities”, and called for a “new passenger offer” including better compensation, information and customer service, driven by performance measures to change railway culture.

Fares and ticketing should be overhauled, he said, but warned that reform would “require tough decisions” and “create winners and some losers”.

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Williams said a new industry structure, better aligning track and train and creating clear accountability was needed. He affirmed the need for “a greater distance between government and running the day-to-day railway” and said he was “looking closely” at the -possibility of a new body governing at arm’s length – although he added that there were “difficult questions” about its scope and place.

Meanwhile, he ruled out giving Network Rail control over the trains as well as track: “You don’t create a customer-focused railway by putting engineers in charge.”

Train operators and suppliers welcomed Williams’ suggestion of an arms-length body. Labour said it backed such a body, “removed from government interference and micromanagement”, but said Williams “misses the point” and it should be all in public ownership.

“Continuing with private train operators subject to performance-related payments means sticking with a failed, unaccountable and disjointed railway,” said Andy McDonald, the shadow transport secretary.

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Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

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