On 20 May 2021, the government published the results of the long awaited Williams Rail Review in the form of a White Paper in preparation for legislation on the government's plan to transform the railways in Great Britain. It is now entitled the William-Shapps plan for rail.

It is not a consultation document, it is what the government are planning to do, requiring legislation. This briefing is not a consultation response either. It is designed to summarise and describe what is being proposed with a commentary.

Railfuture is in a good position to provide this for members and stakeholders, being non-political and not representing any individual interest, other than the well-being and development of our railways, including the people who use and work on our railways.

Our objective is that Railfuture members are engaged and informed on these changes and equipped to enter into informed dialogue on them, irrespective of individual politics.

Feedback from members, branches and stakeholders will be welcomed as the industry moves towards implementation and we see greater clarity on individual aspirations in the White Paper.

The review and key principles

The Williams Rail Review was set up by government in September 2018 to recommend the most appropriate organisational and commercial frameworks to support delivery of the government's vision for the railway. Led by Keith Williams, the Rail Review's recommendations were to be implemented in 2020. The group was comprised, mainly but not exclusively, of people without rail management experience. The reasons quoted included fresh thinking and an objective examination, devoid of industry pressures to maintain the status quo. It was acknowledged that the DfT franchise approach had reached and passed its sell by date.

It is worth restating the six key principles which were to shape the national conversation, although there wasn't a national conversation that we would recognise. Only the briefest commentary is offered under each heading so that members can draw their own conclusions.

The six key principles stated in the White Paper
1. Customers at the heart: a reformed railway which unlocks a new generation of innovation and investment, where it makes sense, choice for customers. Most company business plans say this and the government always stress choice although the choice is really whether to use rail or not, not the colour of the train to Gatwick Airport.
2. Clear accountability: building a structure for the railway that creates confidence in its leadership, making it clear where the buck stops when things go wrong. I don't think we can argue with this as an objective although achieving it with any of the structures under consideration is more difficult.
3. Delivering value for money: avoiding a return to the days when running costs were deep in the red, lines were closed and stations were boarded up. This reads like a reference to the Beeching report years, over 50 years ago. It is not clear why this inflection was added, almost as if another world followed. The cost control problem with our railways is still with us, partly as a direct output from the structure of the railways as implemented under the 1993 Railways Act. Nevertheless, cost control must be a key component of any review of our railways, especially as a developing railway is a key Railfuture objective.
4. Driving economic growth: incentivising investment for the long term, expanding the network and growing and re-balancing Britain's economy. This does suggest a change of approach in that a 7 year franchise is hardly designed to achieve long term investments although the governance around Network Rail is moving to a more long term investment approach.
5. Strengthening communities: ensuring towns and cities across the country get the maximum benefit from a vibrant, growing railway which is more responsive to, and designed around, the needs and aspirations of the areas it serves. This suggests that devolution of control of railways is in the equation, as it should be.
6. Inspiring our people: enabling people who work in rail to have long, fulfilling careers, equipped with the skills to respond to future needs and sharing in the railway's success. This appears to be copied from mission statements of many businesses. In our case, if we want to be kind, we should perhaps interpret it as the need for career based skill, training and a system of industry progression. We would welcome that.

What has emerged after several rewrites, as predicted by Railfuture, badged as the Williams Review, is what National Government wants to do, particularly after taking advice from Sir Peter Hendy, Chair of Network Rail and formerly Commissioner for Transport for London. Sir Peter and Andrew Haines, Chief Executive of Network Rail, have transformed the perception of Network Rail from process driven bureaucracy with no idea of cost control to one of leadership in the rail industry. This has led to an additional and important criterion which is the requirement to optimise the use of the rail infrastructure intelligently, for passenger and freight services.

At the time of inception of the review, the problem was diagnosed as the need to move from franchising toward concessions with more precision as to what the sponsor wants from services and fares; some form of strategic leadership for the industry as apart from just elements of it, and a reluctant move towards devolution. All this still applies but the review has moved on from an examination of the franchise system to a strategic restructure of the whole industry and an expanded role for Network Rail in it, as part of a strategic structure. What has emerged is much like what Sir Peter implemented as Commissioner for Transport for London when it set up and successfully took on responsibilities for main line rail (London Overground) and major rail projects (Crossrail) in London. It is in the form of a White Paper, not a detailed consultant style report.

What is a White Paper? White Papers are policy documents produced by government that set out their proposals for future legislation. It is not therefore a consultation document although nobody will be shy about reacting to the proposals – including Railfuture.

The Covid-19 pandemic

This has been with us for more than a year. It has hit us all. In terms of its effect on our railways, the onset of the pandemic, when people were told not to travel, killed franchising stone dead in a single blow. Journeys went down to around 4-5% of normal volumes.

The train operators did not walk away from the franchise contracts because the government recognised the value of our railways, and almost immediately, in March 2020, replaced franchises with existing train operators with 'Emergency Measures Agreements' (EMAs). These were a dream ticket for the train operators by providing a no risk guaranteed rate of return of 2%. As the pandemic continued, these arrangements were renewed as 'Emergency Recovery Management Agreements' (ERMAs) in September 2020, with a less generous mark up of 1.5%, provided operational quality targets were met.

It is clear that a more sustainable structure is necessary for the future and there is no way back to the old franchising system in its pre pandemic form.

The Plan

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail was presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Transport by Command of Her Majesty on 21 May 2021.

At 113 pages, it is well written and easy to follow so Railfuture members and friends are encouraged to read the document if at all possible. This Railfuture briefing therefore, does not attempt to paraphrase the document, but does highlight specific proposals and issues and poses some questions in the form of a critique of the document. In this brief, for clarity, italics are used to denote White Paper headings and key statements. Railfuture commentary is in normal type.

The White Paper goes straight into Our promise to passengers and freight customers. Seven promises are listed initially without commentary, which are worth inclusion in the briefing in slightly summarised form, as it will be important to refer to these and test how these promises may be fulfilled by the changes planned.

The 7 government promises
Rail double arrow
1. We will bring the railways back together, delivering more punctual and reliable services.

A new public body, Great British Railways (referred to henceforth as GBR for brevity), will run and plan the rail network, own the infrastructure and receive the fare revenue. This will bring the whole system under single national leadership with a new brand and identity, built upon the famous BR double arrow.

2. We will make the railways easier to use.

The White Paper commits to simplifying the confusing mass of tickets, introducing far convenient ways to pay using contactless bank card, mobile, or online. It is intended to end uncertainty whether passengers are travelling with the right train company, providing better coordination of connections between trains and with other transport services, such as buses and bikes. Affordable 'turn up and go' fares and capped season tickets will continue to be protected, in fact there is actually a greater emphasis on a flexible, turn up and go railway.

3. We will rebuild public transport use after the pandemic.

4. We will maintain safe, secure railways for all.

TfL's London Overground.  Photo by TfL.
TfL's London Overground. Photo by TfL.
5.We will keep the best elements of the private sector that have helped to drive growth. GBR will contract with private partners to operate trains in a similar way to London's successful London Overground services.

It is intended that the contracts will include strong incentives for operators to run high quality services and increase passenger demand. Operators of long distance services will have more freedom to attract new passengers, although it is not stated how this would happen in a service contract system. Freight will benefit from national co-ordination and new safeguards and a rules-based access system.

6. We will make the railways more efficient.

Simpler structures and clear leadership will make decision making easier and more transparent, reduce costs, and make it cheaper to invest in modern ways to pay, upgrade the network and deliver new lines. The adversarial blame culture will end and everybody will be incentivised to work towards common goals, not least managing costs. The value generated will be shared with customers and the taxpayer.

7.We want to grow, not shrink, the network.

We are investing in new lines, train services and electrification. Increasing flexibility and productivity will secure the future of the railways and railway jobs right across Britain.


The detailed proposals follow.

The railways since privatisation (Chapter 1)

The narrative makes the case for privatisation particularly citing improvements since privatisation such as:
  • A third more trains run (pre Covid at 21,000 per day)
  • £1bn per year invested by the private sector
  • More, cleaner, carriages. Dozens of new stations, increasing electrification
  • Best market share since 1987 and passenger numbers more than doubled since privatisation
  • Most intensively used rail network
  • Safest in Europe
  • Railfreight transformed
Anybody reading this paragraph in isolation might be forgiven for thinking if our railways are that good, why are they being reorganised? The reason for including this, probably lies in the last paragraph – These are significant successes, for which the privatised railways do not get enough credit and the punchline which follows,

The government is committed to maintaining a major role for private business and capital in supporting Britain's railways in the future. We should not romanticise the nationalised era.

Other concerns are then listed including:
  • Fares have risen by 48% in real terms since 1987. It was actually the government that kept putting fares up in real terms to protect franchises.
  • Genuine concern about cost inflation and lack of cost control. A Railfuture concern here is additionally that the economies of scale have not happened despite the doubling of passengers.
  • Lack of innovation, unlike TfL's Oyster contactless ticketing
  • Working practices have remained largely unchanged for decades, major protectionist strikes.
  • Punctuality dropping (as a result of too many trains on the network)
Public bad, public good

It is evident that George Orwell's Animal Farm, written in 1945, just before BR nationalisation, is on the minds of the authors.

The section cites failings at Network Rail leading to the timetable collapse in 2018, delays to and cost escalation with electrification schemes, gold plating - the kitchen sink. It is not clear, like in the book, whether this is public sector good or bad. Actually it is a lead up to the proposition that Simplification is more important than nationalisation, quoting ridiculous complexity and the blame culture. The blame culture is actually a fundamental part of the money go round in an industry structurally fragmented by government, popularly expressed as Schedule 8 (operator performance blame compensation) and Schedule 4 (engineering disruption compensation). This is a costly art form that must go of course but, it is wrong to imply that this was the fault of the players.

From Williams Shapps Review
From Williams Shapps Review

The conclusion is the current arrangements are A structure that has had its day. Passengers and freight customers told Keith Williams 'enough is enough'.

The effect of the pandemic is seen as an existential challenge for our railways with passenger numbers down to 4% of pre-pandemic levels, now projected to rise to 65% in May 2021. This led to the Emergency Measures Agreements. The key task now is how to get out of these measures and implement a sustainable future for the railways.

This has brought on an acknowledgement that Urgent and radical change is needed to help the railways become more customer focused and financially sustainable, working in the national interest as a public service. Quite a statement for a conservative government.

How the government sees the railways changing for the better is summarised into 10 outcomes:
  1. Modern passenger experience
  2. Retail revolution
  3. New ways of working with the private sector
  4. Economic recovery and financially sustainable railways
  5. Greater control for local people and places
  6. Cleaner, greener railways
  7. New offer for freight
  8. Increased speed of delivery and efficient enhancements
  9. Skilled, innovative workforce
  10. Simpler industry structure

Our commitment to rail. (Chapter 2)

Investment in the future of rail, £40bn to renew and upgrade the railways (including levelling up the rest of Britain to London and South East standards.

Revenue support for the railways continuing (but additional emergency support will not remain indefinitely.)

Short term action to help passengers (come) back (ie flexible season tickets).

It is clear that transition to the new arrangements will take legislative time, and time to implement. The commitment to funding the transition is important and very much welcome, as the patient must not die on the operating table

Integrating the railways. (Chapter 3)

No real railway works without the Fat Controller. Image by Wikipedia
No real railway works without the Fat Controller. Image by Wikipedia
So much, so far is about desired outcomes. The report now starts to turn onto how these might be achieved, listing a series of quite significant proposals. The section starts with the statement that:

Passengers do not know who is in charge of the railways. As the network has become increasingly busy and interdependent, fragmentation and a lack of accountably have held back the sector.

Railfuture would also argue for the need to augment the accountability requirement to include the establishment of bottom lines.

The key proposals are shown here with brief commentary as seen by Railfuture. (The numbers used in the White Paper have been retained for ease of reference.)

1. The key proposition is that the railways will be integrated under the leadership of a new organisation, Great British Railways (GBR).

GBR will own and run the network in the public interest, similar to Transport for London, in London, but across the whole of Great Britain, including Scotland and Wales, as an integrated system.
GBR will sweep up the following roles:
Rail Delivery Group (RDG) - some cross industry functions.
Most rail functions delivered today by the Department for Transport, including procurement of passenger services.
Network Rail. Network Rail is not broken but it will be absorbed into the new structure intact.
Existing devolved administrations and authorities across Great Britain will continue to exercise their current powers and be democratically accountable for them. There is clearly considerable detail to be worked out on the relationship between these authorities and the national system.

Workload of the new body:
  • GBR will draw up timetables and set most fares.
  • GBR will contract with private companies to operate passenger services. These are to be branded as Passenger Service Contracts, earlier referred to as Concessions as opposed to Franchises on the TfL model, so will set fares, specify services and take revenue risk (as the contract is to operate the service with the revenue going to GBR).

2. GBR will therefore be the single guiding mind. The whole system planning will be directed by Great British Railways, working in partnership with devolved transport authorities.

A single balance sheet is welcomed, particularly as nobody has this currently. Railfuture does however contend that it will be essential to have proper bottom line breakdowns of individual components of GBR at the lowest possible operational and commercial level.

3. An important element of the GBR remit will be the requirement to think and plan for the longer term, requiring 5 year plans.

This is a little perplexing in that most infrastructure projects, for example are planned for 30 plus years. More thought appears necessary on this, although a 30 year strategic plan is proposed.

4. National brand and identity.

Station sign. Note the white blanked off section which was an earlier ORR plan to brand London’s suburban rail system as ON (Overground)
Station sign. Note the white blanked off section which was an earlier ORR plan to brand London’s suburban rail system as ON (Overground)
Anybody who has worked in the rail sector is aware of agonised debates regarding branding although it is abundantly clear that our rail system has had more brands than anybody can recall. Good for paint manufacturers but not much more.

The announcement is: There will be a national brand and identity to emphasise that the railways are one connected network.

There are many more road double arrow signs than rail double arrow signs
There are many more road double arrow signs than rail double arrow signs
An updated BR double arrow will be used, although it is not specified what updated means. It should be noted that the existing double arrow has long been adopted by the Highways Authority and used on road signs throughout Britain. There are far more double arrow signs currently on the road network than on the rail network. We really hope money is not wasted here.

 TfL range of roundels, illustrating how TfL extended a simple brand. Image by TfL
TfL range of roundels, illustrating how TfL extended a simple brand. Image by TfL
Variants of the National brand will be developed to reflect the English Regions, Scotland and Wales, whilst emphasising that the railway is one network serving the whole of Great Britain.

The intention is to extend the use of the double arrow from the station totem to application to trains, uniforms and publicity material. A standard typeface will be used for publicity material, Rail Alphabet, which is a very clear typeface, if applied on a contrasting background.

The White Paper is at pains to suggest that Great British Railways will be a new organisation, not just a larger version of Network Rail. Only time will tell as we move to the implementation stage.

5. GBR will be given a binding mandate to be held to account by government and passengers for delivering an efficient, effective public service.

This includes the reduction of waste and efficiency and developing revenue streams that benefit customers.

6. GBR will be given a binding mandate to have as its primary focus serving the interests of passengers and freight customers.

This is expressed as operating in the interests of passengers and freight customers, growing business, pursuing financial sustainability by cutting costs, and developing new revenue streams.

7. GBR will be mandated to increase efficiency.

This is the requirement to cut costs with a target saving of a further £1.5bn per year or 15% of revenue from fares before the pandemic. The aim is to achieve this by efficiency, not cutting service or investment levels.

Not everybody welcomed the last attempt at efficiency on the railway. Images by TSSA and RMT
Not everybody welcomed the last attempt at efficiency on the railway. Images by TSSA and RMT
Members will recall the earlier 2011 McNulty review of the rail industry, which identified a potential saving of 30%, if complexity were removed. Nothing came of it and the trade unions, by means of protracted strikes, were successful in rebuffing many, but not all, attempts to run the industry on a more cost effective way for passengers and the state.

8. The government will hold the railway's leaders accountable for meeting the needs of customers and communities the network serves.

Again this is the TfL model where the organisation reports to the Mayor of London and government. The Secretary of State will appoint the Chair of GBR as he does now with the Chair of Network Rail.

9. A 30 year strategy will provide clear, long term plans for transforming the railways to strengthen collaboration, unlock efficiencies and increase innovation.

The first strategic plan is to be ready in 2022. It is odd that such a plan does not stress capital projects which are almost always take longer than 5 years to deliver.

10. GBR will be made up of powerful regional divisions, with budgets and delivery held at local level, not just nationally.

The return to BR style regions is a surprise given the hype in the original government rationale for privatisation replacing regional barons by business sectors. It would seem to be a move away from focussing on customers and a business approach. Nevertheless it must be recognised that a single entity cannot manage the whole system including dialogue with local stakeholders, which suggests some form of geographic split is necessary, preferably based on principal lines of route. Train planning ie timetables must be centrally led, with key long distance passenger and key long distance freight services 'first on the graph'.

11. In England, new partnerships with GBR will give towns, cities and regions greater control over local ticketing, services and stations.

There is considerable discussion here on partnerships, but less evidence on how this might work with the all powerful GBR. Partnerships can be difficult when neither side knows who's boss!

12. Devolved railways will be strengthened, with closer collaboration with GBR improving services, consistently and co-operation across the country.

This does record that Scotland, Wales, Merseyside and presumably Transport for London will retain existing powers including contract letting. It does not say whether these will be required to be on the basis of the new template (TfL already is).

An important area will be in the South East outside London itself, where a new strategic partnership will be established to bring together GBR, TfL and local authorities. Interestingly the Secretary of State has very recently refused a request from Transport for the South East to acquire full devolved powers as for TfL, insisting that the body keeps to a strategic function on issues such as accessibility, ticketing and communications.

As a result Railfuture is reasonably clear on the position regarding Scotland, Wales and Transport for London. We are far less clear regarding English devolved authorities. We need to know more and it is clear that these bodies are unlikely to be shy about posing the question.

13. Community rail partnerships will be empowered to strengthen rail's social and economic impact.

There is little in the paper to validate why this should be so. Rail user groups play an important and active role in this area. We will be watching how this worthy aspiration will be translated into fact and supporting Rail User Groups.

14. Station Management will be integrated within GBR to improve accountability for long term investment in stations.

Network Rail currently manages the 20 largest stations including London Termini and the largest stations on the network such as Birmingham New Street. As drafted the white paper infers that all stations will be managed by GBR focussing on estate management and asset conditions. It is unclear how smaller stations will be staffed – eg ticket offices.

15. Opportunities to better unlock housing, local economic growth and social value will be explored.

There is a major push to realise the opportunities to support local economic growth including attracting small independent retailers onto stations. There is much experience, such as in the Netherlands, where station buildings, instead of being boarded up, have come to life as community facilities. The benefit to passengers is buildings in a state of good repair, with people in them.

All this is billed as A New offer for towns, cities, regions and nations. Let us see if these bodies see it like that.

16. Transport Focus will be reformed to become a passenger champion, advising the Secretary of State on passenger priorities.

Giving Transport Focus an advice role over its existing passenger opinion monitoring role is to be welcomed.

17. Performance and efficiency will be independently scrutinised by the regulator, the Office of Rail and Road.

The ORR does this now on safety and to an extent on operational performance. The intention is to beef up performance monitoring and reporting across the industry. As now this will apply across Britain and include the ORR's existing safety role, including rules changes.

18. Current safety and security roles will not change.

Although the intention is to consult on safety roles, rules and standards to ensure they are appropriate for the future.

19. Cross-sector organisations will be consolidated.

This means that the RDG role of National Rail Enquiries, ticketing systems will be transferred to GBR.

HS2 Ltd and East West Rail Ltd will remain separate.

Skills: There is an important announcement in here in the form of setting up an independent advisory body including GBR's regional divisions, trade unions, passenger and freight operators and the supply chain. The remit is to address skills, training, leadership and technology.

20. Track access will be overhauled to make the best use of the network in the overall public interest.

The announcement that existing track access contracts will be transferred to GBR as a basis for continuity, and moving to new system designed to optimise the use of the finite infrastructure, underpinned by legislation which includes an appeals process is a key Network Rail input into the review.

These 20 initiatives represent a fearsome, but generally welcome list of specific initiatives, which in total represent a massive change to the role and management of our railways. Successful implementation will require commitment from all players in the current fragmented rail industry.

Replacing Franchising (Chapter 4)

Train operator brands come and go.  Images assembled by Christian Wolmar, Railfuture President.
Train operator brands come and go. Images assembled by Christian Wolmar, Railfuture President.
The next set of nine are all related to arrangements to replace franchising, a core ingredient and indeed the original stated rationale for the Rail Review. They are mostly substantial enough to merit commentary.

21. Franchising will be replaced by new Passenger Service Contracts.

Few people would dispute that service contracts or 'operating concessions' have been more successful in focussing operators on operational performance, passenger satisfaction and controlling cost. It is not a new system, operated by TfL's London Overground and by many rail operations overseas. The concept of a contract for a defined service is standard practice in many industries. For our railways it has taken 25 years of privatisation and a world-wide pandemic to get to this. It is nevertheless welcome. It must be recognised however, that existing franchise contracts do prescribe train services in fine detail as will the new Passenger Service Contracts.

22. Passenger Service Contracts will focus operators on meeting passengers' priorities and will incentivise them to grow usage.

Although the focus is on operational performance and customer satisfaction, there is no reason whatsoever why they should not, as envisaged, include incentives to grow passenger numbers.

23. Each Passenger Service Contract will be designed to support the needs of passengers and the whole network, as part of an integrated system.

The key point here is collaboration as each contract is to be part of an integrated rail system. The replacement of the current 'Ryanair' style connectional policy whereby it is the passenger's fault if a train is missed will be a test of this.

24. Passenger Service contracts will be different across the network and will not be one size fits all, including contract length.

This caveat is stated to reflect that markets and passenger needs vary across the network, eg commuters v Inter-City. The basic principles however, do not differ. Contract length used to be considered in relation to large scale investments, this is less important when GBR will be the major project investor.

25. Operators will have greater commercial freedom on some parts of the network with revenue sharing arrangements where appropriate. New open access services will be explored where spare capacity exists.

This repeats the view that services contracts can, and should, be incentivised to increase passenger journeys and revenue, eg long distance. Turn up and go fares are stressed throughout the piece, in a world where currently, as on LNER, there is a requirement for advance reservation and no turn up and go. This suggests a move away from running the railway to suit the management, to actually providing an offer based on customer needs.

There is an 'en passant' half-hearted mention of 'open access'. Open access, an EU initiative, has brought serious benefits to passengers but does not sit comfortably with the centralised planned system proposed. Open access has worked magnificently for freight, particularly in Britain, and is acknowledged in the white paper as the way forward for freight, with a view to strengthening it with a better industry support structure.

Interestingly, BR freight was privatised essentially as a near rail monopoly as a job lot to Wisconsin Central, (the three trainload companies plus Rail Express Parcels). The remaining freight company was Freightliner, which as a successful management buyout, was the seed of open access, now joined by other successful players, including DB who have since taken over from Wisconsin Central (then marketed as EWS).

The success of rail freight in Britain was an accident in government policy terms, ie achieved despite, not on account of the government's policy at privatisation.

26. The geographic and financial size of Passenger Service Contracts will reflect local markets and needs.

This section does not really say anything other than that the aim should be to reduce barriers to entry from operators with other ideas on connectivity or efficiency. We read this as barriers to enter the process, not specifically open access.

27. Competition for Passenger Service Contracts will be greater than for franchises.

Given recent experience, before and during the pandemic, it would be surprising if any bidders would pitch for new franchise contracts, even overseas railway operators doing it for strategic reasons, certainly not for developing international traffic. A straight contract for a defined operation is a far more attractive offer, with less risk, potentially appealing to a far wider set of players in the transport and services sector.

28. If operators fail, the government will be ready to step in.

Handing in the keys as a result of bidding over-optimistically on revenue (to win) is less of an issue if GBR collect the revenue. Failures will be in the area of inability to meet the service specification. It will be important to make this work, that bidders can demonstrate they will have the resources in place when the contract is awarded. This, importantly, includes train crews and rolling stock resources.

29. The government will work with new market entrants.

This refers to moving away from the Emergency Recovery Measure Agreements to the new system fostering a commercial market to bid for Passenger Service Contracts. There is no mention of encouraging independent open access.

A new deal for passengers (Chapter 5)

Rail is not alone in providing sustainable commuting. TfL promotion of modern commuting (e-scooters).
Rail is not alone in providing sustainable commuting. TfL promotion of modern commuting (e-scooters).
The introduction stresses that the railways may no longer be able to rely as much on the commuter market. As the country emerges from the pandemic the railways must become much better at meeting passenger needs to avoid a society dependent on the car.

This implies that a far more customer oriented approach is needed and if done successfully, as on London Overground. This requires the right product and integrated ticketing, the result can actually improve both the operation of rail services and its economics by creating all day demand. We need a 7 day railway, not just a commuter railway.

30. Easy, frictionless payment options for every journey across the network.

Our outdated ticketing systems are a major deterrent to growing passenger journeys. GBR must invest in modern technology, replacing the current systems where franchise bidders bid for individual systems. The central system, managed by GBR will be key as for example, ticket retailing and the operational data base are totally inter-dependent.

31 and 32. Pay as you Go and digital tickets will be expanded outside London.

This will not happen unless, as the central body, GBR implements the plan as TfL did when it included National Rail services in London's Oyster smart payment system.

33. A new Great British Railways website and app will create a personalised travel experience.

This will replace the array of over 25 train company sites, all different. It will include special offers, often currently marketed solely on individual operator websites. Independent retailers will be able to sell rail tickets as they do airline tickets. Commission rates tend to be rather low to encourage on line booking so it will be interesting if the intention is genuinely designed to encourage agent sales.

34. Customer service at stations will be modernised, with one team working expanded across the network.

The plan is for a single operational team to run stations, including passenger assistance, train despatch and station management. It is not clear, particularly in respect of smaller stations, how this will work between GBR and operational contracted staff.

35, 36 and 38. Fares to be simplified and affordable fares and season ticket caps will continue to be protected. New flexible season tickets will be introduced.

The emphasis is rightly on ensuring affordable walk-up fares, as well as expanding the range of advance fares, to smooth peak demand. The re-emphasis on the walk up railway is very welcome, given unilateral moves by operators to move away from providing a service to the nation. The incentives were all wrong so such behaviour was not unexpected.

A new season ticket product for work commuting is essential, given the move to flexible working. The railway must have an attractive flexible ticket product to retain commuter journeys to rail.

37. Off peak services will be protected.

Emphasis moves away from commuters to a 7 day, all day service, where income will be derived from many journey purposes, particularly if passengers find an attractive, easy to use service, operating from safe, secure stations.

39. Journeys across rail, bus, tram and bike will become seamless in future.

This is interpreted as through tickets from bus to rail, including a digital Bus Plus add-on, together with the establishment of bus hubs at railway stations. All good news but our campaigning for better integration is not done yet. This does require a much more intelligent use of land owned by Network Rail around stations in former goods yards, for example. The emphasis needs to move away from scrap yards and the like.

40. Bikes.

Bikes are already go on Scotrail. Interior of converted bike and ski car for the West Highland Line. Photo by Scotrail
Bikes are already go on Scotrail. Interior of converted bike and ski car for the West Highland Line. Photo by Scotrail
Railfuture members will be aware of the massive government investment in bike lanes across the country. The proposal is to increase bike spaces on trains according to demand in the specification, although bikes will be banned at peak commuter times. This could, of course, have been done in the franchise specification, but it is nevertheless welcome.

41. Trains will be made more pleasant to travel on and easier to work aboard.

The whole focus of a franchise bid was cramming as many people as possible onto peak trains to meet the DfT specification, so resulting in vertical hard seats, no bike spaces and removal of tables (and indeed, but not mentioned, the ability to see out of the window). The aim is for GBR to develop and implement new standards fit for a railway focussed on attracting and retaining the discretionary passenger. Here, discretionary refers to those passengers who would choose to travel by train, above other options. This is potentially a quick win for GBR in terms of specifying requirements for future new trains and refurbishments.

42. Compensation.

The two tier delay-repay system (25% refund for 15-29 minute delays and 50-100% for delays over 30 minutes) will be implemented consistently across the system.

43. Information.

The aim is new consistent information to passengers throughout their journey, from a 'single source of truth'! There is interestingly, a mention of lowering annoying and repetitious recorded announcements. Many regular passengers must be going quietly insane with frequent messages, often after every station, on Covid precautions and security dictated by Transec, a DfT body not mentioned in the paper. This is wooden and unnecessary.

44. Accessibility strategy.

Well designed accessible train interior. Photo by Northern Rail
Well designed accessible train interior. Photo by Northern Rail
The 'Access for All' initiative has been a success, but the money spent on it has been tightly constrained by DfT. The aim is to replace the system of bids for upgrades with an accessibility strategy based on an audit of needs.

All good so far, so the government may be excused for delving into the realms of Unleashing the private sector's potential. So here goes.

Unleashing the private sector's potential. (Chapter 6)

Great British Railways will be expected to learn from the best elements of the public and private models, and to be entrepreneurial and actively promote the railways and the many businesses that support it.

The White Paper actually prescribes the public and private sector roles envisaged clearly.

The section does stress the need for innovation and Railfuture would equally stress the need for research, involving the private sector.

45. Freight.

The economic and environmental benefits of rail freight will be supported by a new, customer focussed approach, modern track access rights and new safeguards.

This recognises that rail freight is the big success story during the pandemic and should not be seen as a marginal business, nor an irritant to the operation of the passenger railway. Freight needs a secure access regime, investment in key pinch points such as the approach to Trafford Park and around Ely. The aim is to embed freight into the 30 year strategy, including an examination of new terminals.

Of critical importance, but not mentioned, is the pricing regime for running on the network, to go with it. This must be viable for the freight operator competing against the road haulier.

46. Train leasing companies.

It is probably necessary to read this section a few times to grasp what is being said. It gives train leasing companies a mention and suggests incentivisation of all parties to work together to improve the operation. Best move on.

47. Modern contracts.

This is not about the service contracts but an acknowledgement of the need for robust supply chains and speedy approval processes. This includes a requirement for better procurement, including for big projects such as with ticketing and retail.

48. Partnerships with key infrastructure providers (to facilitate broadband national connectivity using the railways).

5G is a major twin initiative to upgrade Network Rail's digital network infrastructure, as well as facilitating the government's Project Speed exercise to provide 5G internet speed across Britain.

There is also a series of paragraphs on local innovation schemes (49), support for small and medium enterprises (50), and subcontracting (51).

Accelerating innovation and modernisation. (Chapter 7)

We are now moving away from what on to how but there are some specific areas of potential interest to Railfuture members.

In particular 52. Electrification.

Getting on with the job. Electrification is key to rail's future.  Credit BR
Getting on with the job. Electrification is key to rail's future. Credit BR
Electrification of the network will be expanded, and alternative technologies such as hydrogen and battery power will help to achieve zero emissions from trains and reduce air pollution.

The declared aim is to meet the government's commitment to a net zero society with an aim to remove all diesel-only trains from the network. This is slightly short of all electric or alternative power sources as bimodes will presumably remain.

Railfuture has and will continue to campaign strongly for electrification. This includes the benefits of increasing rail's contribution towards overall net zero by increasing capacity through electrification, and so facilitating modal shift to rail. We will want to see a specific programme.

RIA campaign
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53. Green Recovery.

The aim is to produce a comprehensive environmental plan in 2022 that will establish rail as the backbone of a cleaner future transport system. This does include modal shift to rail as net zero is an overall transport objective.

54. Energy efficiency.

This section lists a series of initiatives ranging from tree planting, biodiversity, protecting the infrastructure, LED lighting and local renewable power generation. The list is well worth reading, and GBR is in a far better position to implement such initiatives than attempting to do this through the current structure.

Importantly the plan includes traction energy reduction by improved traction power management and regeneration systems.

The list is impressive as is the intent. It does need the research and delivery capacity to go with it.

55. Climate resilience.

This Network Rail item has been included because spending on making the rail system resilient against climate change is an increasing element of the budget. It is also important to mitigate against catastrophic failures such as we witnessed at Carmont, Aberdeenshire.

56. Open data sharing.

This is a specific initiative to work with partners to bring the benefits of open data to the rail system. In the fragmented structure, many systems were tailor made with the need for a myriad of interfaces. GBR represents a real opportunity for open data sharing without excessive contractual issues.

57. Research.

BR research was sold to AEA Technology in 1996 (and subsequently sold to DeltaRail Group Ltd in 2006), very competent enterprises, but not in house for the rail industry. Short term franchises led to scant interest in research, which by definition takes time and investment and results are not easy to predict. GBR, as with BR, has significant potential to coordinate research and make results available, within and across the industry, including the supply chain. BR went further and had an in-house research facility. The issue is that the aviation and automotive sectors spend vast amounts on research and GBR will presumably be capped to a more modest approach. Railfuture sees research as key to any long term successful business, especially one with many challenges such as is the case with our railways, including addressing the environmental agenda and achievement of the many goals in the White Paper.

Project Speed gets a mention. This is a government initiative to deliver infrastructure projects across the economy, not just railways or transport. Given Network Rail's infrastructure project portfolio this is seen as a vital tool in facilitating projects (time and cost). GBR should benefit from a cross industrial sector approach, including government procurement.

Empowering rail's people (Chapter 8)

59. New skills and training approach.

It is difficult to believe that the rail industry has not had an industry-wide approach to skills and training for the last 25 years. A central initiative to develop skills and training is hugely welcome. There are many examples where operators just poach people, such as drivers, rather than train them. Conversely, at the bottom of the food chain, operators like Northern, for example, act as a training unit for other rail operators. Similarly there are many engineering skills that are currently fragmented across the rail industry. This is not efficient.

60. A sector-wide workforce plan.

There is no current industry-wide plan for use of the industry's key resource – its people. The difficulties this has caused, compounded by the skills issue mentioned above, are key to many of the challenges recently witnessed whereby train operation has not been properly resourced, leading to cancellations. In fact the franchise process encourages bidders to bid with insufficient cover ratios, with dramatic adverse effect on performance.

Trade unions have been allowed to exploit this, in an industry attempting to cover shortfalls. A far more resilient approach is needed, with people being recruited and trained as part of a plan for the whole system. Staff retention will be an issue to be tackled within parts of the operation, without suggesting pay harmonisation and national bargaining.

61. Diversity.

If skills and a whole sector approach to training are to be adopted, together with career paths not requiring a transferee to leave the company, there is scope for a proper recruitment plan that includes recruiting a diverse population of employees. Not attracting people with potential skills is a financial problem for the rail industry. The plan also needs to improve the perception of the rail industry from outside, an issue now being vigorously pursued in the construction industry.

62.ORR productivity data on pay.

The pay drift as a result of fragmentation has been a feature of privatisation. This has got to be tacked if the railway is to be seen as worth investing in. No particular solution is declared in the paper but visibility of pay rates across the industry is the basis for a start.

Conclusion, Delivering the revolution.

The paper proposes an Advisory Group to support the Secretary of State, as one would expect, even if it is of little consequence other than for information. Much more significant is the proposal to ask Andrew Haines, Chief Executive of Network Rail, to bring this together and establish interim arrangements, and set up Great British Railways.

This is a revolution for sure, even if the review did not start off as a revolution.

The stated desired outcomes are excellent. The actual outcomes however could well range from a fantastic way forward for our rail system to a dismal monolithic failure. The plan will have its detractors, particularly those who will lose money if the plan to implement efficiency and reduce complexity succeeds.

It certainly deserves a chance.

Above anything else, success will depend on capable leadership. Appointing Andrew Haines to lead the process alongside Sir Peter Hendy as Chair of Network Rail, the key player, is a very good omen.


Great British Railways: Williams-Shapps plan for rail

Railfuture Industry Structure campaign