The Williams Rail Review – rethinking how Britain’s railways operate

The ‘root and branch’ review of the railways, led by independent chair Keith Williams, was established to come up with proposals for the most appropriate organisational and commercial framework for the rail network.

Image credit: Wolfgang Rottmann/Unsplash
Image credit: Wolfgang Rottmann/Unsplash
  • Updated: 04 June, 2019
  • Author: David Hawkes, Policy Manager

After many reports, sticking plaster reforms and tinkering at the edges, September 2018 saw the government announce a full-scale independent review into the running of Britain’s railways. 

Major improvements to the rail network have been made over the past two decades, attracting record investment, but fares remain among the highest in Europe and passenger satisfaction continues to score poorly.

Recent issues with timetabling and delays to infrastructure programmes have passengers questioning the service they receive, but, as Keith Williams stated at the George Bradshaw Address in February, “there's real hunger for change within the industry as well as outside". 

ICE’s submission to the Review looks at issues affecting rail infrastructure, including the need for a system that addresses long-term cost pressures, better integration between track and train, a more agile rail sector, and exploring options for devolution of the network. 

Consistency in funding  

There's a need to view rail as an infrastructure system. This system requires continuity in terms of funding and organisational structure to be able to deliver the best possible service to passengers – something that's at the heart of the Review. 

But at present, franchise agreements don't marry up with Network Rail’s five-year Control Periods.

Longer-term investment plans operate on another timeframe, while the manufacturing and supply side of the sector relies on certainty in order to deliver innovative products to the market.  

These conflicting cycles are why we've recommended that the government should replace stop-start funding periods with a longer-term rail investment pipeline, particularly with the significant amount of investment required for the Digital Railway Programme and further decarbonisation of the rail network.

This will help provide certainty to the industry and investors and foster a culture of innovation and skills development.   

The role of devolution 

In principle, the regionalisation of the rail network is a sensible policy that can allow for greater customer focus and efficiencies. This includes local consideration of timetabling, budgetary responsibility, and standards that can be locally applied to provide better outcomes.  

Imposing a one-dimensional regional structure will not be the right solution for a complex infrastructure system such as rail, though.

To drive a fundamental improvement in the national rail system, there is a need to join up both the management of track and trains and better integrate local and regional policy ambitions and aspirations into planning and delivery, ensuring it's agile and flexible enough to respond to local priorities.  

Sub-national transport bodies are already emerging as the way in which the gap between national and local projects can be filled, and consideration must be given to joining up rail enhancements with wider planning issues across local authorities. 

Delivering projects better 

Building on the principles of the Infrastructure Client Group’s Project 13 initiative would enable long-term relationships and closer collaboration on major rail programmes and projects, allowing suppliers and advisors to better know their customers and adapt and develop appropriate methods and products for their needs.  

Network Rail, a Project 13 ‘early adopter’, has committed to implement the principles into its next generation track alliances, learning from and sharing good practice with other infrastructure organisations. 

An integrated approach such as this will ultimately lead to a more resilient and better-value railway for passengers and industry. 

Keith Williams’ final report will be delivered to the Department for Transport this summer, with a Government White Paper outlining the planned reforms to be launched in the autumn. 

ICE’s full submission to the Williams Review is available here

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