In September 2018, Transport Minister Chris Grayling hired ex-BA boss Keith Williams to undertake a wide-ranging review of the UK rail sector and presented his initial thoughts at the annual George Bradshaw address. He used this opportunity to confirm the remit of his review and of the fundamental analysis he is undertaking. Whilst the presentation was consistent with Keith still being in 'listening mode' there was a hint of the direction his final report will take - that there is no 'one size fits all' solution to our complex railway system.
Better integration between train companies, the rail network and regional authorities
Amey is supportive of the two key issues that underpin the review; greater integration between infrastructure management and train operations; and more devolution, both to regional authorities and to operators. Both increase accountability, and would better empower railway managers and regional authorities to respond with more agility to local requirements.
Technology is already driving integration, with trains becoming more complex and specific to the infrastructure they run on. Signalling and track-side infrastructure will also gradually be brought into the train cab. Our current model, with infrastructure and trains being separately managed, will become increasingly outdated and inefficient.
Transport for Wales shining a light
On the Cardiff Valleys network of the Wales and Borders franchise, KeolisAmey, as the operator on behalf of Transport for Wales, will be in control of both track and trains. A major upgrade for this part of the Welsh network has been designed that involves both infrastructure and new trains. This solution would have been complicated and drawn out had the two parts of the system been considered separately.
Keith Williams' core challenge to us is to put customers at the heart of rail. One major constraint to overcome here is that of the rail performance regimes that often set operator against the infrastructure manager. As each attempt to avoid financial losses at the expense of the other and is potentially distracted away from the impact of delays and over-running engineering works, etc on customers.
Devolution - creating better alignment and public confidence
Having regional governments setting and defining the objectives, strategy and customer vision for transport - in the way that Transport for Wales, Transport for Greater Manchester and Transport for London do - creates an aligning point for different stakeholders in the industry, with a strong framework for an integrated provider to deliver joined-up transport services.
Combining clear frameworks and integrated operations with strong, hands-on regulation and transparency of the accountabilities and responsibilities that each hold, will create public confidence in the system.
Accountability must be transparent
Success will come from designing the right governance into the system. As well as ensuring operational essentials - such as comprehensive access rights for freight and long-distance, multi-route services - robust oversight should be designed into the fabric of the frameworks to ensure it's clear where accountability lies and where the buck stops.
As Keith alluded to, imposing a one-dimensional simplistic structure will not be the right solution for our complex system. If we wish to drive a fundamental improvement in our national rail system, we need to join-up both the management of track and trains and better integrate local and regional policy ambitions and aspirations into the planning and delivery of the