Britain’s railways have a long history of reform and reorganisation. A review of the railways, chaired by Keith Williams, is ongoing. It is likely to recommend improving accessibility and regional accountability, with one public ‘guiding mind’ responsible for ensuring that all parts of the railway deliver for passengers. These are changes that the new government could take forward. Where the Conservatives and Labour differ is on the involvement of the private sector in running train services, and how far those services and the management of the infrastructure should be integrated.

Britain’s railways: a problem child?

It is hard to recall a time when the railways were not described as ‘broken’ in some way – even though passenger journeys have soared over the past 20 years and investment levels are high (see charts).

Over the years successive governments have said that the performance of the railways was not good enough. The last major government review of the railway in 2011 observed that “there is widespread recognition that the industry has problems in terms of efficiency and costs […] passengers and taxpayers […] are paying at least 30% more than their counterparts in other European countries”.

The rail industry has been reformed and restructured several times since 1997. Multiple reviews of the industry have made hundreds of recommendations for reform. RAIL Magazine estimates that there have been 30 ‘rail reviews’ since 2006. Most recently commuters across the North and South East experienced significant service failures following the chaotic May 2018 timetable changes.

It was this last service failure that caused the then Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling, to commission a ‘root and branch’ review of Britain’s railways in September 2018. The review has an independent chair, Keith Williams.

The Williams Review and taking it forward

Keith Williams has been gathering evidence from the industry, passengers and freight customers. He is working with the Department for Transport on a White Paper that will contain short- and longer-term plans to overhaul how the railway works.

Williams has set out initial thoughts about where the problems with the industry lie and what principles he intends to apply to address them (see box 1).

We had expected the Review to be published before the end of 2019 but, given the General Election, this is likely now to be early 2020. Any structural reform involving a change in statutory responsibilities requires primary legislation. It will be for the new government to decide what to do with Williams’ recommendations.

The Conservative manifesto committed to ending franchising, creating a simpler, more effective railway system, and giving local control to metro mayors. The Labour manifesto pledged to bring all rail services into public ownership and establish a publicly-owned rail company to steer planning and investment.

Keith Williams has said that by and large the reforms he will propose could be implemented whether rail services were publicly or privately operated.

Who should run the railways?

There is some misunderstanding about the current structure of the railways, including who owns it and who runs it.

This is understandable. At privatisation the national railway company – British Rail – was broken up into dozens of different units. By 1997 most of these were owned or managed by the private sector. Following many rounds of reform, all infrastructure is now in public hands, managed for the most part by Network Rail (a publicly-owned company). The private sector owns the trains, while other private companies operate services under detailed contracts with the Department for Transport and others. The terms of these contracts determine service standards and set out how the operator will be reimbursed or penalised based on performance.

Over the years there has been disquiet about the bit of the rail industry that passengers primarily experience – the stations and the trains. The Conservatives argue that privatisation has been successful and that the involvement of the private sector has led to innovation and more and better services. However, they acknowledge that the system is not perfect. In their view, incentives could be better aligned and contracts should be restructured to encourage innovation and give regional oversight and accountability.

Labour believes that the initial fracturing of the industry at privatisation 25 years ago has led to wastage and inefficiency. They also object to private contractors, as they see it, taking money out of the system to pay dividends to shareholders. They want train services to be fully brought back into the public sector and operated on a not-for-profit basis.

Further reading

Insights for the new Parliament

This article is part of our series of Insights for the new Parliament. This series covers a range of topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament.