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The ORR’s main job is to ensure that the rail network performs smoothly and, where it does not, to remedy any problems and hold those responsible to account. It is responsible for safety regulation, the performance of, access to and investment in the network.

One of ORR’s key roles is regulating Network Rail, the infrastructure owner and operator. While the regulator does not have a role in regulating the train and freight operating companies, its decisions regarding Network Rail have a direct effect on train services. The regulator can fine Network Rail for breaches to its network licence, which it has done on a number of occasions since 2002.

ORR is also one of the key players in the five-yearly periodic review process during which it sets Network Rail’s outputs and funding for the following review period (the next one will run from 2019 to 2024 and begin later this year).

Plans for reform of ORR were put forward after the McNulty rail value for money study was published back in 2011 but little happened. There is now renewed impetus following the Bowe and Shaw reports on the future of the rail industry. The Secretary of State and the ORR have committed to reforming the role of the regulator in the future, focusing on customers, and improving cohesion and effectiveness.

ORR also has a role in monitoring the performance of Highways England – that is not discussed in this paper.

Briefings on other rail issues are available on the Railways Topical Page of the Parliament website.


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  • This paper provides an overview of the current rail system, including how it is delivered and how it performed and was financed up until the spring of 2020 when the UK locked down in response to the global coronavirus pandemic. It explains the impact of the pandemic on services and funding and sets out reforms to rail passenger services (franchises) as a result of the pandemic. The final section discusses the Williams Rail Review, initiated in 2018 and yet to report publicly, setting out the emerging conclusions and key questions to be answered.