The Williams Rail Review by Dick Fearn 28th October 2021
This was an eagerly awaited presentation and Dick began by giving a brief outline of his background within railways from the start of his career in 1973. He has many happy memories with personal highlights including his time as Chief Executive of Irish Rail – as he described it “a vertically integrated proper railway company”. Having established his railway credentials, he went on to talk about the Review describing how they were in the middle of the task in 2019 at a particularly motivating time to be involved, and then Covid came along.
Dick put the review in context describing the number of reviews carried out over the years - very few of which have resulted in any sort of structural change. Key questions included: why should there be another review; Recalling BR in the 1980s; 25 years of growth from 1994 to 2019; the impact of Covid on rail (massive); GBR – the Williams Shapps Plan for Rail.
In 2018, Chris Grayling - Secretary of State at the time, made the decision to go ahead with the review largely due to political dissatisfaction at the apparent lack of coordination within the rail industry. Concerns about fares regarding both complexity and value for money had also been a problem for a long time along with strategic planning issues, for example major shortcomings in timetabling and perceived failings in the franchising process since the mid-1990s. This was a prompt to stop and look at what was happening.
The 1980s was an era between post war decline and closures, followed by the growth in the new millennium. It was a challenging political environment for rail, with resistance to further closures but limited finance for either enhancement or growth. However, between privatisation and Covid, there was substantial growth which continued even through the financial crisis and beyond, and Dick provided supporting statistics. In spite of Covid the forecast for the end of 2021, is higher than might have been expected. A combination of factors contributed to growth such as a buoyant economy, improved service frequencies and new journey opportunities some of which were a genuine result of privatisation. New markets were created, new trains were provided, and new IT-based information systems were put into service.
Covid 19 resulted in a drastic drop in rail passenger travelling to around 15% of pre-Covid levels but there was positive feedback for keeping essential journeys going throughout, with government support. Might the sustained level of home-working causing demand to shift away from the previous commuter peaks result in an opportunity to provide a more even service throughout the day thus making better use of resources? Rail freight growth has emerged from the increased capacity available during this period because of the reduction in passenger traffic, with the freight companies wishing to keep those pathways into the future. This properly sets the background for the Williams Review.
One of the first items under consideration was internal reform to bring track and train together to improve coordination. Dick referred back to his time with Irish Railways when every sector involved was represented at meetings eg track, engineering, signalling, chief operating officers, marketing, finance etc. It was one team working together for both passengers and freight. So fundamental structural reform was deemed to be necessary for a rail sector with the agility to respond to future challenges and opportunities (Covid has certainly provided both of those);.and a look at efficiencies NOT cuts. And it is no longer appropriate for companies to withhold necessary information on the basis of commercial confidentiality especially given the financial support from government through the pandemic.
The review was carried out throughout 2019, chaired by Keith Williams, former CEO of British Airways and deputy chair at John Lewis at the time of his appointment. While only two out of the six people had extensive railway experience, all had other significant experience to contribute. Input was invited from industry and the public with around 750 reasoned and evidenced responses received, and over 200 public and stakeholder consultations were held – from single individuals to larger groups. Conclusions were reached and the report was ready at the end of 2019, and by January 2020 the white paper was being drafted. As the task neared completion, security was understandably tightened, all the feedback had been taken into account and the final draft was complete. Then Covid struck and everyone was locked down.
The white paper was published in May 2021 with one principal recommendation: a new state owned public rail body, at arms-length from government, to be called GBR. It is intended that GBR will provide a directing mind for the industry going forward.
GBR roles and responsibilities will include owning, operating, maintaining, renewing and enhancing the railway infrastructure absorbing Network Rail in the process; planning service strategy and setting timetables; setting passenger fares and retaining the revenue (to GBR and not to shareholders); letting concessions to train companies for the day to day running of services; facilitating freight operators to access the rail network. The regulator should not be involved at this level. The GBR transition team has been formed, chaired by Andrew Haines – current chair of Network Rail, and implementation planning has begun. Progress will be hindered by necessary Covid recovery requirements and one has to be realistic about the plan but there should be significant progress by 2023/2024. It has started well and the report has received much positive response with people actively wanting it to succeed.
Questions and answers were taken both from the physical audience and the virtual audience (via chat) as this was a ‘hybrid’ meeting and included subjects such as how much action would be politically motivated. Answer: you cannot do a proper job with too much interference so politicians need to get on with setting policy and allow the industry to get on with its job. How long will the arm be with regards to GBR operating at arms-length from the government - sufficient length for the board and team to be allowed to formulate strategy and carry out implementation.
Questions followed on Passenger Transport Executives where these have proved effective, and to what extent will GBR have local input. There is a need for an overall body but with a significant role for local. With regards to issues of service levels and quality, this will be a matter for the operators and will be a factor in their success or failure. There were questions on livery highlighting the longevity of the former BR double arrow logo, and Dick confirmed that there would be standardisation for signage and presentation to the public.
Unsurprisingly, the issue of DfT specified ‘ironing-board’ seats came up with Dick confirming that designs can be produced to satisfy both safety and comfort and that the obsession with packing in the maximum number of seats possible, shows a lack of understanding of what the customers want. There were also questions on the TOCs taking risks and recognition that operators need incentives but that there must be some control. The recent failure of the South Eastern franchise was raised – a possible scene for the first new concession? The transition has to be managed and it would not be the most effective way to start completely from scratch with completely new companies, neither does anyone wish to see the trains stop running whilst the new structure is implemented. The final question concerned open access operators and how this might fit into the new structure. What is clear is that all those involved will need to work together.
The vote of thanks was given by branch chairman Andy Davies who highlighted a very enjoyable talk and that most had welcomed the report.
As a footnote, the meeting was our first full meeting done as a hybrid physical and virtual presentation. Unfortunately, due to a last minute emergency, we were unable to work with the intended full technical set-up and were missing a key member of the team which meant that those joining us via Zoom did not have the best experience. Our apologies to those who had sound issues and did not hear the welcome to the virtual attendees. We were unable to use the webcam on the night but will be doing so in future so that the virtual audience can see the speaker. We now know what went wrong with the sound and how to fix it and our thanks go to those members of the virtual audience for helping with feedback and with the experimental work carried out afterwards. Barring other issues beyond our control, next time will be better.