The world which the railway faces today is very different to the one that Keith Williams saw when he began his review

Okehampton: an early win

One of the more dispiriting experiences in life is waiting on a station platform, only to see on the information display the expected arrival time of your train slip back and back, until you almost wonder whether it is in reverse gear.

So it is with the Williams Review which has had a gestation period longer than that of an African elephant, and still not arrived. Let us hope it is worth waiting for.

The latest delay can be ascribed to purdah, the longstanding convention that political announcements are not made within six weeks of a local election. There will, though, really be no excuse for delaying publication beyond mid-May.

To be fair, the Williams Review and the accompanying ministerial statement would have appeared about a year ago had Covid-19 not intervened. My understanding is that it was at an advanced stage, being circulated for approval via the normal ministerial write-round, when the virus struck. A couple of weeks earlier and the report might have seen the light of day.

In a way, it is fortunate that it was derailed at the last minute, for it would have been swiftly out of date had it been published. Yet some of the recommendations are as germane today, even more so in fact, then they were in March last year.

It is the transport world’s worst kept secret that Williams has sounded the death knell for the franchising system that has existed with tweaks and variations since privatisation. It seems very likely that we are to move to the concession model that can be found in London, and indeed for bespoke reasons on Southern. And that after all is in effect what we have now with the Emergency Recovery Measures Agreements that currently apply across the network.

The advantage of this approach is to give far greater financial certainty to those actually running the trains in terms of the income they might expect to receive. No more East Coast franchises falling over. By linking the level of management fee to passenger satisfaction, an incentive remains to improve the passenger experience.

I would suggest to the Department for Transport, however, that they make sure that in any concession model, there is an incentive for the operator to collect the fares. It may be a coincidence but my experience is that drivers on London buses, where the concession model applies, seem rather less concerned about ensuring passengers have paid for their journey than is the case elsewhere. In London, the farebox goes to Transport for London and is therefore on the face of it of less interest to the bus operators than is the case outside London, where the farebox goes straight to them.

One uncertainty relates to the reappearance or otherwise of some sort of arms’ length body, similar to the old Strategic Rail Authority. The general belief is that Williams has recommended this, that the DfT is happy with the idea, but that the centre, either at No 10 or 11, has rather late in the day raised concerns. In addition, the need for central government intervention over the last year has given the transport secretary Grant Shapps a taste for being the fat controller, notwithstanding his relatively lean physique.

An alternative suggestion has been that Network Rail could perform this SRA-type function. This is not a good idea. It would make them judge and jury in their own court, and besides, they have enough to do with their present remit without taking on anything else. Network Rail has a major and very important role to deliver going forward, as the railway adjusts to the new post-Covid reality, and with the government pushing ahead with railway reopenings and network enhancements.

One of those adjustments needs to relate to the timing of engineering works that affect so many weekends. The idea that Sundays, even Saturdays, are relatively dead days and the best time to close the network may have been appropriate in 1954 but it is not appropriate now. Peter Hendy, Network Rail’s bullish chairman, has in my view correctly identified that leisure travel on rail is likely to come back quicker than commuting, and that leisure may be the best hope for growth in passenger numbers. That being the case, Sundays will become ever more important days for the railways.

Of course, engineering works do have to take place, but perhaps now is the time to move to occasional and well-planned blockades lasting a week or so. Apart from anything else, that is a much more efficient and cost-effective approach. Network Rail should also look to use single line working where the signalling allows, with of course proper safety precautions for the trackside workforce.

Last Sunday (as I write) my one-hour train journey from London Victoria to Lewes had turned into a train to East Croydon, a bus to Redhill, a train to Haywards Heath and a bus to Lewes – in all taking considerably more than twice as long as usual. Faced with this deeply unattractive option, I took a Southeastern train from London Bridge to St Leonards Warrior Square and changed for a coastal train to Lewes, only to find that I was to be turfed out of that at Polegate and onto yet another rail replacement bus.

At the moment, with passenger numbers down, I suppose it barely matters, but if Peter Hendy is right about leisure travel, then this sort of arrangement will simply rule out Sundays on the train (or rail replacement bus) for many people. The rail industry cannot afford to turn away potential passengers like this.

I shall be interested to see what the Williams Review says about growth on the railway. The government deserves credit for taking the long view

I shall be interested to see what the Williams Review says about growth on the railway. The government deserves credit for taking the long view, not just for recommitting to HS2 but for its policy of reopening railways that should probably never have been shut in the first place.

It is a welcome sign of DfT determination that the Okehampton line will soon be reopened. It was not long ago that Sunday passenger services were available on this freight line – I know, I travelled on one – so this was an obvious early win. Nevertheless, credit to the DfT for pushing for it.

If we are to see more reopenings, and I sincerely hope we do (and this naturally is where I mention Lewes-Uckfield), it is vital that Network Rail delivers on time and on budget. Some of the costs identified for reopenings have been eyebrow-raising to say the least and it is vital these are brought down. On the face of it, it is difficult to understand how a new two-platform station can cost up to £20m when Network Rail brilliantly created a pop-up station in about two weeks to serve Workington when it was flooded. Network Rail has to adjust its thinking.

We do not always need gold-plated solutions. If for example (as in the north-east) there is an existing freight line that allows running at 35mph, then for goodness’ sake open it for passenger traffic at that speed rather than engendering years of delays and much extra cost to drive the line speed up.

The good news is that Network Rail seems to have grasped these broad points, and its new Project Speed initiative is a welcome one that should cut delivery times and costs of infrastructure works.

I very much hope that for environmental reasons, Williams will endorse a strong and coherent programme of electrification

I very much hope that for environmental reasons, Williams will endorse a strong and coherent programme of electrification (and a date to phase out diesel trains). Electrification has suffered over the last 25 years from a stop-start approach depending on the view of the incumbent transport secretary. It is hardly surprising that costs have been excessive, but there are signs that lessons are being learned. Yet it is instructive to note that in Scotland, electrification is coming in at around £900,000 per single track kilometre, whereas the equivalent cost in England is about £1,400,000. In Germany, it is about £650,000. I hope someone at Network Rail is examining why costs are so much cheaper in Scotland, let alone in Germany.

And talking of costs, let us not forget our friends at the Treasury. While the DfT is busy promoting sustainable transport, the Treasury is encouraging modal shift to private road vehicles by freezing fuel duty for the eleventh year running. It has also frozen HGV excise duty and suspended the HGV levy until August next year. No such help has been offered to the rail freight industry.

Even more significantly, buried away in the Treasury’s misnamed Green Book – the guide to appraising projects – you will find carbon valued at about $17 a tonne. Yet internationally, the going rate is about $75 a tonne. If that international value were adopted, suddenly rail projects would look much more cost effective, and the government’s £27bn road building programme even less attractive. Perhaps the Treasury does not want to look too closely at this, even with the government’s decarbonisation strategy due out shortly and COP26 happening in Glasgow later this year.

So let us see what Williams brings. There are signs that both the DfT and Network Rail are getting in the right place to move forward productively on the back of its publication. The question is whether the Treasury and No 10 are also signed up.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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