The Rail Review – what are the facts? A briefing by Ian Brown CBE FCILT, Railfuture Policy Director, on the Rail Review announced by Chris Grayling on 20 September 2018. Image: DfT.
Announcement of the Review
On 20 September 2018, the Secretary of State for Transport, the Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP announced “A sweeping review to transform Britain’s railways. The review is billed to be the most significant since privatisation, which will consider ambitious recommendations for reform to ensure our vital rail system continues to benefit passengers and support a stronger, fairer economy.”
The review has been launched ahead of the interim report by Professor Stephen Glaister into timetabling issues in May. It will take into account the findings of his final report at the end of the year.
The Terms of Reference
The Terms of Reference for the review were announced three weeks later in the House of Commons by the Secretary of State, on 11th October. This announcement was preceded by a statement to the effect that before the 1993 Railways Act, “British Rail was in seemingly terminal decline” and how the Act ”brought investment in new services and better accountability”. The statement mentions that “Privatisation has reversed the decades of decline and heralded the fastest expansion of our railways since they were built by the Victorians, delivering millions of pounds of investment and radically improved safety”. The safety point is true, but it is easy to wonder why such a fundamental “root and branch” review is deemed urgent if it everything was that good, albeit requiring investment in growth, an issue very familiar to Railfuture members.
This cannot be simply as a result of the Northern and GTR timetable fiascos as both of these are subject to a separate ORR review? It is also abundantly clear that the government has no interest whatsoever in recreating British Railways.
The general reaction from stakeholders appears to be very cautious as the industry goes on hold against a rambling, even political, remit rather than a forensic examination of what is wrong in a growth scenario and how can it be fixed?
The government’s vision is for the UK to have a world-class railway, working as part of the wider transport network and delivering new opportunities across the nation. The Rail Review has been established to recommend the most appropriate organisational and commercial frameworks to deliver the government’s vision. It should be comprehensive in scope and bold in its thinking, challenging received wisdom and looking to innovate. It would be easy to interpret this as an announcing an integrated transport system for Britain. I doubt it except in the context of implying devolution.
The Review will be independently chaired. Its recommendations should support delivery of:
- commercial models for the provision of rail services that prioritise the interests of passengers and taxpayers
- rail industry structures that promote clear accountability and effective joint working for both passengers and the freight sector
- a system that is financially sustainable and able to address long term cost issues
- a railway that is able to offer good value fares for passengers, while keeping keeping costs down for taxpayers.
- improved industrial relations, to reduce disruption and improve reliability for passengers.
- a rail sector with the agility to respond to future challenges and opportunities.
This is the most illuminating part of the terms of reference as it potentially conditions the whole exercise.
The Review’s remit does not include the infrastructure and services that should be provided by the railway. It will not reconsider public investment decisions made through existing franchise agreements, Control Period 6 commitments, High Speed 2 and other major projects, or spending decisions that will be made through Spending Review 2019.
Structure and Process
The Review should develop a comprehensive and relevant evidence base to inform its findings. This should reflect analysis of the UK’s rail sector, the directions set by the Department for Transport’s “Strategic Vision for Rail” published in November 2017, evidence from previous reviews of elements of the rail sector, and experiences in other countries.
The Review should also consider lessons from recent developments, such as the establishment of the East Coast Franchise and Professor Stephen Glaister’s inquiry into the May 2018 timetabling “change”.
The Review team must effectively address passenger, workforce and community priorities and concerns, including accessibility and the needs of freight and industry. It should consider how to improve transport services across UK regions and devolved nations, including exploring options for devolution of rail powers. It should engage with key stakeholders including industry bodies, national and local government, Parliament, and, where appropriate, the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales. It should have a structured approach to engagement. (Railfuture members will have probably noted the reference to the UK, but engagement with only devolved government of Scotland and Wales so Northern Ireland appears to have been forgotten. Perhaps the Secretary of State meant Britain, not the UK!).
The Review’s recommendations must be practical and deliverable. It should ensure improvements for passengers are prioritised as soon as possible while recognising the challenges of delivering significant change within current legal and regulatory frameworks. It should consider how to reform the sector over the short, medium and longer term, and how legislative and regulatory change might support necessary reform.
The Review will report to the Secretary of State for Transport who will keep Cabinet colleagues regularly updated on the Review’s progress.
The Secretary of State has appointed Keith Williams as independent Chair of the Review, leading the Review team’s work on his behalf. The Chair will direct the work through a new dedicated team within government. The Chair will have close oversight of the work to ensure that it meets these terms of reference and to ensure effective engagement.
Keith Williams will also chair an Expert Challenge Panel, who will support him in testing the Review’s analysis and recommendations, and provide fresh perspective and advice.
There is clearly quite a stress on the independence of the exercise and the need to be bold and innovative. There is already a widely circulating view within the rail industry that not involving industry players with experience and a challenge panel with not much depth (other than Dick Fearn) is unlikely to produce practical solutions. Being bold and innovative are great words but something a little more substantial is seen as required if rail’s growing pains are to be fixed by the application of surgery.
Required outputs - An Autumn 2019 White Paper
The Review ”may” publish interim reports during the period of its work. As the Secretary of State is committed to updating parliament regularly this would seem to be essential unless to avoid a big surprise or disappointment at the end.
The Review’s final report will be a government White Paper, which will be published in Autumn 2019. It will set out the government’s intentions for reform of the rail sector. The White Paper is also expected to reflect ongoing improvements the government is making to passenger experience during the Review.
Implementation (not mentioned on the terms of reference)
Plans for reform to be implemented from 2020.
“Expert Challenge Panel” members
The Rail Review Expert Challenge Panel will support the independent Chair of the Review, Keith Williams. Its members will help to ensure the Review thinks “bravely and creatively” and that its recommendations can deliver the stability and improvements that passengers deserve.
The published list of members of the Challenge Panel are:
Dick Fearn (Chair of Network Rail’s Western Route Supervisory Board)
Tom Harris (former labour Transport Minister)
Margeret LLewellyn OBE (Chair of Network Rail’s Wales Route Supervisory Board and a non-executive director of the Development Bank of Wales)
Roger Marsh OBE (Chair of Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership)
Dr Alice Maymard CBE (TfL Board member and the former Chair of Scope, the disability equality charity)
Tony Poulter (non executive board member at the DfT and Chair of the East Coast Partnership)
Railfuture and its informed membership understand that many of the problems currently evident in the rail industry are as a result of the premise that privatisation was based on a no growth scenario. Railfuture is not (at least here), speculating why this growth has occurred ie structure of the industry or economic growth which is directly correlated to ridership. Growth has occurred, the pips are squeaking and the industry needs to gear itself up to cater for significant growth. The Review needs to focus on this, by implementing well informed changes including much better investment processes. Potentially disenfranchising the whole industry from this process is probably dangerous as the cure may well be worse than the problem. Challenge is good but it must be informed.
We will use our established contacts to help the Review focus on delivery of a bigger, better railway in Britain which is Railfuture’s remit.
We will also continue to keep our members briefed on progress with the exercise and our engagement with it.
Rail Review ministerial statement
Government announces root and branch review of rail
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