The Williams Review is still on track to be published in the autumn, its author told the Transport Select Committee yesterday. However, significant changes aren’t likely to happen for another five to ten years.
Keith Williams, the former British Airways chief executive, was updating ministers on the progress his independent inquiry has made since its launch in September 2018, following a timetable fiasco and the collapse of the East Coast Mainline franchise agreement with Stagecoach and Virgin Trains.
We last heard from Williams in July, when he suggested a “Fat Controller” type figure should be put in charge of day-to-day operations.
Yesterday, he was quizzed on how far his review had got; whether he was concerned a change of government, following a general election, could cancel out his findings, which are due to presented in a whitepaper this autumn; and how he planned to make rail more accessible.
Williams confirmed the review would still be published in the coming weeks, and said that he had received 750 submissions from a request for feedback and talked to 220 people. “One thing that comes out – everyone is interested in seeing something happen as a result of this review,” he said.
The committee noted that the previous secretary of state, Chris Grayling, pledged to implement all of the review’s recommendations. However, they asked if this was still the case under a new prime minister: “Has the Department for Transport pushed back?”
“The department seems favourably inclined, but legislation may take time to implement. There’s a five to ten-year programme to bring about fundamental change for completion,” Williams replied.
“I’m an independent chair – I don’t see any reason why we would disagree, but I would make my views clear. My job is to influence government to accept what I think is right solution.”
And with a new secretary of state, Grant Shapps, who replaced Chris Grayling, Williams said there had been no change of approach in the review under Shapps – nor under new prime minister Boris Johnson.
“Before, I met with Chris Grayling monthly. So far I’ve met Grant Shapps twice,” he said. “We share the same aims – it’s a meeting of minds. There’s been continuity. They’ve let the review team and panel experts, and department, get on with the work, with a series of checks on the way.”
Williams also said overall there was a “momentum for change” – “we committed to the white paper in autumn – that’s still our objective. We will produce it in autumn. If there’s an election, we’ll talk to the ministers.”
Held to account
The committee also wanted to check Williams himself was being thorough. “Did the panel challenge you to think the unthinkable? Was there any creative tension?” they asked.
“There are numerous areas of debate,” he replied, including “the future of franchises and open access”. He added fares and ticketing were also picked out, as they had “been in need of reform for a number of years. We can make changes.”
When asked whether he had support from the industry, Williams said: “I give real credit to the industry, to the Department for Transport: The UK government department responsible for the English transport network, as well as transport matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that are not devolved., and commentators into industry. We’ve received enormous help.”
‘Franchising needs to change’
The committee asked whether it was a revolution or evolution that was on the cards – to which Williams said “revolution”, and in particular with the franchising model. “Franchising needs to change, we said that in February,” he said. “As we’ve gone through, we’ve been careful not to jump ahead with things. But we did with franchising. Network Rail has been open about being open to change, and the TOCs also open to change – they feel hemmed in.
“First we look at the passenger, then fares and ticketing, and then industrial model/commercial model, then implementation.”
With passengers requesting free Wireless free internet access and better delay repay, Williams also said performance had been bad due to the fragmentation of companies. “What I’ve described will work in the interest of the passenger. They don’t care if it’s nationalised or not,” he said. “The public is not bothered. Rail is 85 per cent public owned anyway. We’re looking at the model: where do risks sit with – private or public? Who can bring innovation?”
However, one committee member questioned Williams’ claim that the public was indifferent – and requested to see Williams’ research. They argued passengers preferred public ownership “as they see ending fragmentation as the problem, and it needs to be public ownership. It is unfair to say public are indifferent”.
Williams replied: “I always go back to the passenger interest. That’s been my starting point, my north star. How do we make things work for the passenger?”
Meanwhile, the committee asked Williams how the review was exploring accessibility. One member said the fact that staffing levels had decreased, with many train operating companies removing guards, had hindered efforts to make rail a more viable option for disabled passengers.
Williams replied: “As a starting point, we can consolidate the pot of money. There are 25,000 stations. I can’t pretend in the review it will be easy to do things quickly. We need a plan. In terms of people on the platform – that’s a level of detail that needs to be actioned in terms of operations in place.”
He also pointed out that around 60 stations were used by 85 per cent of total rail passengers, and that he would listen to the recommendations made by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee. “We are using their knowledge and taking it on board for review… a lot of progress can be made in the next two or three years to benefit passengers,” he added.
Later in the hearing, Williams said he would be proposing that local authorities and communities are given more of a say in how stations are run. “Bring track and train closer together, to get more holistic thinking. We’ve looked at the role of local communities and local areas in terms of determining where spend is. For example, in Manchester – I’m in favour of [longer] platforms. Local governments can put in knowledge of running the rail of the future.”