Event blog: On the Right Track: Rail Post the Williams Review | IPT

On Monday 19 October 2020, the IPT hosted a virtual event on what British rail might look like after the Williams Review. The event was chaired by Huw Merriman MP, Chair of the Transport Select Committee and featured two guest speakers: Mary Hewitt, Managing Director of Chiltern Railways and Johnny Schute, Chief Operating Officer of the Rail Safety and Standards Board. Attendees present came from the House of Commons, House of Lords and the wider travel industries.

The Williams Review was established in late 2018 as a “sweeping review to transform Britain’s railways”. The report is yet to be published but Williams has confirmed recommendations such as the creation of a new national railway body to act as a ‘guiding mind’ will be made. Of course, things have changed dramatically since the review started, with COVID-19 having a significant impact on how we use rail.

It was noted in the event that the industry is reliant on revenue from predominantly office-based workers travelling five days a week during peak times. However, since the outbreak of coronavirus, there has been a mass transition to home working. With swathes of businesses utilising digital infrastructure for the first time, and many workers enjoying the increased work/life balance afforded to them, working from home is expected to be much more common even after the pandemic.

The rail industry is, and will need to continue, to adapt to these changes in consumer behaviour. During the event it was commented that timetables are being adapted and flexible ticketing – which could allow people to have season tickets allowing for two or three days travel a week – is being developed.

Looking to post-the Williams Review, there was an agreement that rail journeys must be customer focused. This means making sure journeys are good value for money, reforming and simplifying the fare system, and making journeys as easy as possible. Rail journeys are extremely green compared to other types of transport, especially air and road, and this could form a compelling part of the offering for using rail. Railways must also feel safe and healthy, especially under current circumstances, if passengers are to be coaxed back.

One attendee commented that the best way to provide value for money and a good, customer-focused service is ensuring rail policy is joined up with wider government thinking on levelling up. This means looking at rail alongside housing, employment and local economies. Long term strategy with clear policy objectives will encourage the private sector to invest money and skills to increase customer numbers. The rail network must work for local communities if it is to be a success. Part of this could include increasing diversity into the workforce, which is currently predominately ageing and white. Upskilling will also be vital to creating a workforce capable of running a modern railway.

There were some questions from attendees on the matter of a new ‘arm’s length’ national railway body that the Williams Review has confirmed will be a recommendation. Though it is not yet clear exactly the exact remit of the body will have, it was agreed that the body could play a positive role in providing light-touch guidance. The preference, however, would be that the body does not have the power to consistently overrule private sector companies and that it allows for voices from across the sector to be heard.

Points to consider going forward:

  • How can the sector tie into the levelling up agenda to assure that people across the country have joined up access to improve their lives, commutes and productivity?
  • Does the reduction in commuter traffic on trails rail offer a new opportunity for freight?
  • What rail strategies being implemented internationally would be effective if adopted in the United Kingdom?