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by James Page 18th December, 2018
3 min read

Rail reviews: do we need another one?

I considered starting this blog with a joke about the regularity of rail reviews compared to trains on the track. However, for many passengers around the country there just isn’t anything funny about train travel in the UK anymore.

Many more people are travelling by rail than ever before, in nicer and newer carriages. Furthermore, passengers have forgotten how frequent rail disasters seemed to come about in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. However, increased investment in the infrastructure to improve passengers’ on-board experience hasn’t mitigated their growing frustration over delays.

Perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back came in September when it was revealed that levels of punctuality on Britain’s railways were at their worst for 12 years. The Office of Road and Rail released figures showing that severe weather and timetable disruption were responsible for 14% of trains missed in the industry measure of punctuality in the 12 months to August 2018. It is the highest level of delays since 2006, when 14.2% of trains were late.

Something must be seen to be done by government to address these issues. In October, the Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling MP announced that there was to be another ‘root and branch’ review of the rail industry. ‘Sigh’ said the industry. After all, the UK rail system has been almost in a state of perpetual review for years. It seems the ink is scarcely dry on one before another is commissioned. Furthermore, they appear to have had little effect.

2011 Rail Review

In 2011, Sir Roy McNulty delivered a long list of recommendations on how the industry could become more efficient and save money. Among others, Sir Roy picked out the over-centralisation at Network Rail, which were give as reasons why costs were too high – the level to which the DfT meddled in the industry’s affairs, misaligned financial incentives between infrastructure manager and individual Train Operating Company (TOC), and complex fare structures. Seven years later, it would be hard to argue that major progress has been made in any of these areas.

Since the McNulty Review in 2011 there have been a regular flow of reviews on specific aspects of the system (franchising, Network Rail, internal organisational reviews within DfT etc.) as well as command and policy papers aplenty.

The latest rail review will ‘consider all parts of the rail industry, from the current franchising system and industry structures, accountability, and value for money for passengers and taxpayers.’ It will not, however, look at the infrastructure and services that should be provided by the railway. This means that HS2 and other major spending commitments are off limit. They will be instead considered as part of next year’s government Spending Review.

2019 Rail Review

The review will be led by former boss of British Airways, Keith Williams, who will be supported by an ‘Expert Challenge Panel’. A varied membership is promised to ensure the review is not dominated by issues relating to overcrowding in the south east. The Review’s findings will be published as a government White Paper in autumn 2019.

One of the key issues the review will address is what Chris Grayling calls a lack of ‘clear lines of responsibility’ within the industry. This could mean an attempt to untangle the number of representative and regulatory bodies who split responsibility for safety and other key functions.

One would also expect to see recommendations encouraging further shared responsibilities between those in charge of the track and trains, especially at a regional level. However, as the conflict between the competing financial incentives between ToC and infrastructure manager were clearly raised by McNulty back in 2011, don’t expect radical change any time soon. Grayling himself has said that change in this area needs to be ‘evolutionary not revolutionary’.

Even so, given the levels of anger and disillusion now clearly evident from rail passengers, there will be pressure for this review to deliver real change. At GK Strategy, we can help regulatory bodies, ToCs, suppliers, passenger groups and all likely to be impacted by this review to understand the potential impacts on their business and to prepare appropriate responses.

If you’d like to talk, please contact us via james@gkstrategy.com

Interested in more content on the railways? Check out our recent blog on mixed use railway stations.

See more articles by James Page