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What is the William-Shapps Plan for Rail?

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, the Government’s White Paper on rail reform, was published in May 2021. The plan followed a comprehensive review (the Williams Review) of the railway in Great Britain led by Keith Williams, the former chief executive of British Airways. This review began in September 2018. The publication of the White Paper was delayed to ensure its conclusions and recommendations remained appropriate given the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the railway.

In a statement to Parliament in May 2021, the then Transport Secretary, Rt Hon. Grant Shapps MP, described the plan as “the biggest shake up in three decades, bringing the railway together under a single national leadership, with one overwhelming aim: to deliver for passengers.” The Plan proposed to:

  • to create a new public body, Great British Railways (“GBR”) as a single “guiding mind” to own the infrastructure, receive fare revenue, run and plan the network and set most fares and timetables.
  • to replace the franchise system with new passenger service contracts, similar to the contracts operated on Transport for London’s Overground and bus network.
  • reform, and upgrades to, the fares system, with an emphasis on standardisation and simplicity, together with the introduction of new and innovative products such as flexible season tickets.
  • the formation of a new 30-year strategy for rail be created to “provide clear, long-term plans for transforming the railways to strengthen collaboration, unlock efficiencies and incentivise innovation.”
  • the establishment of anational brand and identity (an updated version of the classic ‘double arrow’ logo) to emphasise that the railways are one connected network, with national and regional sub-identities. The plan also sets out who will be responsible for decisions about local train services and rail infrastructure.

In May 2022, the Government, in the Queen’s Speech, announced its plans to bring forward a Transport Bill, which will include the legislative changes needed to implement the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail. In June 2022, the Government began to consult on its proposed legislative changes. This consultation ran until 4 August 2022. The consultation focused specifically on the legislative changes required to deliver the Government’s rail reforms; some aspects of the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail were not included in the consultation because they do not require primary legislation. The Government is currently analysing the feedback it received.

More information on the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail can be found in the Commons Library briefing on The future of rail.

Why does the cost of my season ticket keep going up?

In Great Britain, season tickets, as well as other ‘regulated’ fares, usually go up in price each January in line with an inflation-linked cap imposed by the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments. There are long-standing concerns amongst passengers about rail fares and the rate at which they increase.

There are essentially two sorts of fares:

  • Regulated fares (about 45% of fares, largely made up of London commuter fares and season tickets), whose annual increase is capped – by the Secretary of State in England, Welsh Ministers in Wales and Scottish Ministers in Scotland – and linked to the previous year’s July Retail Price Index (RPI) figure as a measure of inflation.
  • Unregulated fares (all other fares, including first class and advance purchase), which are set entirely at the discretion of the train operators.

How much did fares go up in 2022?

Regulated fares, including season tickets, rose by 3.8% in 2022, the highest increase since 2013. In contrast, the ORR’s statistics on rail fares show that unregulated, standard class fares rose by 4.8% compared to March 2021, while unregulated first class fares increased by just over 11% over the same period.

In July 2022, the Retail Price Index (RPI) rose to over 12%. However, the Government has said that fares in 2023 will not rise by as much as this and that the increase, which usually occurs every January based on the previous July’s RPI, will be delayed until March 2023. This delay from January to March also happened in 2022, to allow passengers more time to buy cheaper flexible and season tickets at the older, lower rate. However, the Government has not yet decided how much fares will increase in 2023.

Why is the price of season tickets capped?

The reason for regulating fares is that rail operators are not subject to the same degree of competition as other commercial sectors, such as airlines. The DfT explain that regulating fares “protects passengers from possible market abuse” and ensures fares “remain affordable”, especially for those “who do not have a realistic alternative.” The commuter market, especially around London and other cities, has been the main market where regulating fares has been deemed necessary because these passengers have had fewer practical alternatives to commuting by train. However, since the Covid-19 pandemic more people divide their time between working at home and travelling to the office (i.e. hybrid working).

Retail Price Index or Consumer Price Index

The RPI is longest running measure of inflation and is used for certain types of cost increases, including rail fares. However, it is no longer classified as a national statistic as the way it’s calculated does not meet international standards. In 2018, the then Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling MP, committed to link rail fares to the CPI instead. However, the Government argued that the industry’s costs, such as staffing costs, must change in parallel, if this change is going to be financially sustainable. Baroness Vere, the Government’s transport minister in the Lords, told the House in March 2022 that the Government continues keep its “policy under review, with a long-term goal of replacing Retail Price Index (RPI), as it is phased out of use.” However, she added that:

any change will need to overcome specific barriers to ensure it is delivered sustainably and will require balancing against the potential impacts on passengers, taxpayers and the railway.

For further information see the Commons Insight How much could rail fares increase by in 2023, and why?

Other topics addressed in this paper

This paper also answers FAQs on the following topics:

Railway ownership, accountability and funding

Ownership of railways; devolution; funding; the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail

Rail fares, tickets, compensation and complaints

Season ticket increases; flexible season tickets; compensation for delays; complaints

Passenger services

Publicly-run train services; train timetables; reliability; Government penalties for poor performance

Stations, trains and infrastructure

Funding for rail infrastructure; reopening of old railways lines; strategic rail freight interchanges

Major rail infrastructure projects

HS2; Northern Powerhouse Rail

Rail, climate change and the environment

Rail’s environmental impact; railway electrification

Further reading

Further information on related topics can be found in the Commons Library briefings on:

and the Rail topical page of the Commons Library website.

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