E-scooters at a crossroads
E-scooters at a crossroads

View from the Summit: hard questions and honest answers for UK rail

Words by:
March 15, 2019

WA was at the Transport Times Rail Summit this week, joining industry and political leaders to talk about what’s coming down the line in 2019 and well beyond.

There were fascinating discussions about HS2, Crossrail, vast numbers of new rolling stock, regional devolution and smart ticketing that gave a real sense of ambition and exciting glimpses of new innovations that will transform passenger experiences almost in real time.

But following a horrendous 2018 for large parts of the network and many operators, it was left to the Rail Minister, Network Rail, and Keith Williams – the person tasked with a root and branch review of the UK’s rail network – to deal with the big-ticket questions of performance and trust that overshadow improvements and swell support for more radical reform (as supported by the Labour Party’s leadership), that could pose more existential challenges for the industry if enacted.

The political context is febrile. There is a Conservative government no longer willing to defend the rail industry based on its private sector instincts alone, and a Labour opposition with a clear plan to take franchises back into public ownership at the point of expiry.

The contributions from the Summit’s leading voices were strikingly honest and thought-provoking.

We know now that Keith Williams is half way through his rail review. He has spoken to over 130 groups and received over 200 submissions from operators, regulators and passenger groups. The basic task set to him by the Department for Transport in late 2018 was to examine, outside of HS2 and Crossrail, what we do with the railways in the next century?

Among his long list of considerations includes the relationship between train and railway operators, accountability, industrial relations and skills, and how to ensure the innovative and fair use of railway data, sits the question of affordability.

This doesn’t just mean addressing high ticket prices for passengers. Half the UK’s entire transport budget goes on the railways, yet rail journeys account for only two per cent of all transport movements. Can this be justified and sustained going forward? Perhaps part of the answer lies through sharing the responsibility for more of the infrastructural parts of the railway, but it wasn’t clear how deeply the review will delve into this issue. In fact, Williams didn’t give an inch on what was going into his final report but he did emphasise his appreciation of industry’s passion for delivery, absolute focus on safety, and recognition of huge investment. It felt like an early commendation.

The Rail Minister, Andrew Jones MP, who seemed genuinely delighted to be back in the job, expressed the view that industry could make the case for that level of investment through the simple metric of “bums on seats”. Increasing demand, he cheerfully stressed, showed the system was working, strengthening passenger confidence as well as UK manufacturing and those all-important post-Brexit supply chains. Jones’ mood only appeared to chill when it was time for him to leave the Summit and return to the Commons for more Brexit votes.

Network Rail’s Chief Executive, Andrew Haines, gave a startlingly candid appraisal of his organisation and the wider industry’s shortcomings and future challenges. He admitted that franchise specifications were set up to encourage bidders to “promise the Earth” beyond the realms of realistic delivery, only to then seek to renegotiate the terms of their operating contracts. His criticism wasn’t just for others; he said Network Rail needed to be honest about where others could better fulfil elements of its current role – an astonishing admission. But was this a nod to private interest, or perhaps to local government?

Certainly, London’s Deputy Mayor for Transport, Heidi Alexander, has a clear view – she outlined plans for Transport for London (TfL) to take over responsibility for the tracks themselves, from Network Rail, in and around Greater London’s suburban network to fully maximise track capacity. TfL’s full plan for a metropolitan suburban rail service is expected shortly.

On the devolution point, there appeared to be no shying away from these challenges in other regions. Far from being deterred by witnessing the recent woes of Network Rail and private operators over performance and timetabling, representatives from Wales, Transport for the North and TfL all gave the same message – they see these challenges and want to grasp them.

On paper, the Rail Summit may have only been rail industry wonks talking to each other. But far from feeling like an echo chamber there was a palpable sense of self-examination and determination. It really wasn’t a case of “we’d better change or Jeremy Corbyn will nationalise us” (he wasn’t mentioned all day); the ambitions are sincere and there at least appears to be a genuine appreciation that the route to industry’s success and the expectations of passengers are coterminous. All change? We’ll see.

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