THE man in charge of the Department for Transport’s Rail Review says the DfT should take a back seat and stop managing franchises.
Keith Williams says a new post or organisation is needed, because ‘someone needs to be accountable to the public’. He added that such a change would be ‘key for regaining public trust’.
He believes the DfT should limit its involvement to setting general policies and deciding budgets, but he is apparently ruling out suggestions that Network Rail should take over franchise awards and management.
Franchises are set to survive, but not their present form. Mr Williams told the BBC that he wants future contracts to last longer than the usual seven to 10 years, because operators with longer life times would ‘have more incentive to invest’, and that the new operating contracts should be ‘underpinned by punctuality and other performance-related targets’, including train capacity.
However, there would less official monitoring of the details, and a franchise should not be about ‘how many ticket offices there are in a station’.
Ticketing is already getting close attention, and Mr Williams says ‘Pay-as-you-go across regions and cities has been difficult to implement because of the fares system that exists today’.
He also believes ‘a national system should be created to allow more third-party companies like thetrainline.com to improve the way people buy tickets’.
The conclusions of his review are due to be published later this year.
RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: ‘RMT warned from the off that Keith Williams had been hand-picked by Chris Grayling and the Tories to try and get them off the hook over the privatised chaos on our railways and this BBC interview shows we were dead right and the fix is well and truly in. RMT also warned that Keith Williams would side 100 per cent with his big-business mates and duck the issue of public ownership of the railways.’
More, see Keith Williams rules out Network Rail as franchise controller
THIS is the first clue we have had about Mr Williams’ thinking for several months, and since he last spoke in public he and his team of assistants have been sifting through a multitude of submissions which had to be filed with the Rail Review by the end of May.
Mr Williams is not going to recommend renationalisation of passenger services, and he had already said ownership was not the main issue.
He has been tantalisingly brief, but then this was a media interview, not his full report. Franchises seem likely to live to fight another day and this is not surprising, considering his review was sponsored by a government which is opposed to public ownership.
Network Rail’s responsibilities seem unlikely to be increased, but he does want a new layer of management to take over the business of awarding and monitoring franchises, recalling one of the tasks of the former Strategic Rail Authority.
He is also signalling that there would a ‘lighter touch’ as far as franchises are concerned, with his reference to ticket offices. This will please the Rail Delivery Group, whose franchise-holding members have long been calling for a less restrictive strait-jacket and more freedom to make decisions for themselves, but it is set to irritate the unions, who are firmly opposed to any reform which could reduce facilities like ticket offices, and also any change which could affect jobs.
Few will disagree with his critical view of the ticketing system, which has been made vastly more complicated since privatisation and for which the private sector must take most of the blame. But his reference to third-party retailers is confusing, because a simplified and more logical system of charging for rail travel does not depend on them. There is no need, either, to create a ‘national system’ for ticketing. We have that already.
Some of Mr Williams’ solutions, as we have them here, could create fresh conflicts. What if a newly-liberated franchise made commercial decisions which did not work out? Would it be able to seek additional support from the DfT or the new franchise authority? It could be argued that holders of the public purse cannot be held responsible for decisions they cannot control. Franchises with more freedom would also have greater freedom to go bust if they got the details wrong.
There is more than a hint that the Williams Review is keeping a careful eye on public opinion, with phrases such as ‘key for regaining public trust’, which could be translated by a cynic as a bid to reduce the number of potential votes for any political parties in favour of renationalising the passenger railway.
In fact, since the debacle of the May 2018 timetable changes, public trust is gradually regaining its equilibrium without any help from Mr Williams, after more recent timetable revisions were carried out without detectable hitches. Meanwhile Northern passengers, who have as much reason as any to be distrustful, are set to be reassured over the coming months by increasing numbers of new trains coming into service. Indeed, the latest National Rail Passenger Survey, carried out in the spring by Transport Focus, showed a national three-point increase in passenger satisfaction.
As for the new franchise management structure, only time will tell, although changes are undoubtedly needed if bidders are to be attracted in future.
But it will be disappointing if, after all the talk of a ‘root and branch review’, the main plank of Mr Williams conclusions turns out to be a politically-motivated exercise in public relations, accompanied by one or two gestures calculated to get a welcome from the right-wing supporters of a free market.