Scope of ‘root and branch’ rail review revealed

THE transport secretary has ruled out nationalisation as a solution to the problems of the railway industry.

Chris Grayling has published the terms of reference for his ‘root and branch review’, and these exclude total renationalisation but also preserve existing major schemes, such as HS2 and Network Rail’s responsibilities during Control Period 6, which starts in April.

He told MPs that ‘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 its scope and bold in its thinking, challenging received wisdom and looking to innovate’.

The best proportion of public sector and private sector investment has not been decided in advance, however.

Mr Grayling said: ‘The private sector has an important part to play in shaping the future of the industry, but it is important that the review considers the right balance of public and private sector involvement.

‘Some have called for the return to a national, state-run monopoly, and for us to go back to the days of British Rail. There is an expectation that taking on hundreds of millions of pounds of debt on to the government books will magically resolve every problem.

‘This fails to recognise that many of the problems that customers faced this year were down to the nationalised part of the railways.’

This was a reference to Network Rail, which became a public sector body in September 2014. However, the Department for Transport has usually refused to concede that the change amounted to nationalisation.

Mr Grayling argued that a call for more renationalisation ‘also creates the sense that a government-controlled rebrand would somehow make every train work on time. Those who make this argument fail to tell passengers that the much-needed investment that is taking place today would be at risk, and that taxpayers’ money would be diverted from public services to subsidise losses.’

The review is being led by Keith Williams, the deputy chairman of John Lewis. Members of the panel include former British Rail and Irish Rail manager Dick Fearn, along with former Labour transport minister Tom Harris. Although interim reports may be published over the next few months, the main result will be a White Paper in about a year from now.

The review has been welcomed by passenger watchdog Transport Focus, whose chief executive Anthony Smith said: ‘Passengers will welcome this wide-ranging review after the torrid summer of timetable disruption, on-going patchy performance, strikes and with fare rises looming next January. Passengers waiting on the platform will want to see a focus on day-to-day performance delivering trains that arrive on time.

‘Transport Focus will ensure this review focuses on how to deliver better reliability, more space to sit or stand on trains, and better value for money for passengers.’

Rail Delivery Group chief executive Paul Plummer said: ‘The Williams Review presents a once in a generation opportunity to unlock the future railway Britain needs and today’s announcement is a positive first step.  We will continue to campaign for big, bold reform which enables the partnership railway to deliver more for customers, employees, communities and the whole country.’

But Mr Grayling has also fired a shot across the bows of Govia Thameslink Railway, which was one of the operators at the centre of the timetable disruptions this year. He told MPs: ‘Professor Stephen Glaister’s interim report has provided us with an accurate account of the series of mistakes and complex issues across the rail industry that led to the unacceptable disruption that passengers experienced.

‘GTR must take its fair share of the responsibility – its performance was below what we expect from our rail operators.

‘Officials in my department are taking action to finalise how we will hold GTR account for the disruption and the rail minister will keep the House updated.’

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