At the point at which the Williams Review was announced in September 2018 there was a sense that the privatised rail system set up by John Major in the 1990s had exhausted itself and run out of steam. Whilst privatisation had delivered some notable successes – a doubling of passenger numbers, a 33 percent increase in timetabled passenger services and a significant investment in new trains – a number of structural issues were plaguing GB Rail. These included:
Prior to the Williams Review, these issues had begun to manifest themselves in a number of well publicised failings such as:
Two and a half years on, the May 2021 White Paper should receive a positive welcome as it presents a coherent set of policy prescriptions that tackle the issues that prompted the Williams Review head-on.
As well as the right policy prescriptions, it is critical that going forwards the industry has the right leadership. Given his background as former CEO of a major train operator, South West Trains, and existing CEO of Network Rail, few would question the credentials of Andrew Haines to lead the interim work required to develop the new rail body. Therefore, taken together, these announcements represent a major step forward for the railways both in terms of the more coherent structure that will be established, and the new leadership will be put in place.
The size of the task of implementing the reforms over the next couple of years should not be underestimated. The Review has taken two and a half years to conclude and the starting point is a highly fragmented industry which faces significant financial challenges following the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on passenger journey numbers. It is therefore imperative that the new industry leadership makes a fast start on the work required to prepare for the reforms whilst the necessary legislation is finalised and taken through Parliament. To get on the front foot, this body must: