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Keith Williams rules out Network Rail as franchise controller

KEITH Williams has been giving more details of his Rail Review for the Department for Transport at an event in Bradford.

But although he said ‘I won’t be setting out my recommendations today’, he went on to reveal one of them: ‘One thing I am not considering is giving Network Rail control over the trains, as recent reports in the media suggest. This is no judgement on Network Rail – I’ve been impressed with their professionalism and the direction of their Put Passengers First initiative. But you don’t create a customer focused railway by putting engineers in charge.’

His shopping list was otherwise fairly familiar: putting passengers first, shaking up the ticketing system and possibly creating ‘a new arm’s length body or bodies to act as a ‘guiding mind’.

He continued: ‘It is an idea we’re looking at closely. In principle, it could have clear merit, working to solve some of the challenges the industry faces around accountability and fragmentation.

‘But what would it really mean to have a new public-sector body when government is providing so much of the funding? How could that be accommodated?’

He also said the DfT was keen to see changes. ‘The secretary of state has, since the beginning of the review, challenged me to deliver revolution not evolution. And DfT permanent secretary, Bernadette Kelly, has spoken openly of her and her department’s appetite for change recognising that that the department has become too immersed in delivery,’ he said.

He continued: ‘Bernadette Kelly understands that, at the end of this review, simply tinkering at the edges will not be credible. And the government will have to step back from the railway.’

It seems that most of the important decisions are still in the melting pot, apart from the insistence that Network Rail will not manage franchises.

He summed up his aims like this: ‘I want to see the creation of a thoroughly modern, 21st century service provider. A railway that is run in the public’s interest, delivering for passengers, supporting local economies, embracing innovation and new business models to improve journey experience and reduce costs. It must be open, collaborative, embrace and create opportunities – for its people, passengers, communities and businesses. It must also sustain and enhance opportunities for our important freight industry, moving goods and materials around the country and helping to reduce congestion and pollution on the roads.

‘We need to change both the design and culture of the railway so it prioritises customers – passengers and freight.’

His words have received a mixed response.

Transport Focus chief executive Anthony Smith said: ‘Passengers will welcome the potential for increased local and national accountability, passenger focus and the boosting of their voice that Keith Williams has outlined. The initial push for fares reform must now be renewed as flagged up in Transport Focus research during the Review.

‘However, the acid test of all these changes will be when passengers feel sustained, improved reliability of trains and better value for money.’

The Rail Delivery Group has already called for more ‘flexible’ fares.

Chief operating officer Jacqueline Starr said: ‘Businesses, communities and passengers across the country have told us that they want easier fares, increased accountability and a system which allows rail companies to focus more fully on delivering for customers. While we await the detail, it‘s very encouraging to see these areas being prioritised by the review team. Our proposals for a single independent organising body would ensure everyone is working towards the same customer-centric goals and changes to fares regulations would reduce overcrowding on some of the busiest services and create an easier to use, better value fares system.’

Meanwhile, the unions have been deeply critical. Mick Cash of the RMT said his union had ‘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’, while TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes said: ‘Keith Williams is taking us into the realms of pure fiction. Its plain daft to suggest going back to the future by echoing the failed and discredited SRA which proved costly and unworkable.

‘Mr Williams has already said that the current rail franchising model is finished – but what he is offering today is a little more than a sleight of hand. Creating a new body is wildly out of step with public demands for a public railway and won’t cure the many ills of privatisation.’

This view been supported by the Labour Party, whose shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: ‘Keith Williams misses the point. Continuing with private train operators subject to performance related payments means sticking with a failed, unaccountable and disjointed railway. 

‘Instead, we should bring the track and train together in a single company in public ownership – but, critically, at arms length from Government and removed from government interference and micromanagement.

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