Chairman of Network Rail, Sir Peter Hendy, has revealed some of the discussions taking place at the top of government about the future of the rail sector.
Sir Peter said he had talked with the chancellor Rishi Sunak about a potential 20% cut in long-term passenger demand on the railway.
He also revealed that a Government White Paper on the back of the work done in the Williams Review is expected shortly, and is set to argue for the creation of a new body tasked with overseeing the running of the entire network.
Sir Peter Hendy
Times of change
The COVID crisis collapsed the franchising model and raised the prospect of long-term reductions in public transport passenger numbers due to increased working from home.
As the vaccine programme means the country is finally emerging from a series of economically devastating lockdowns, Sir Peter outlined conversations he has had with the Government in the last few weeks about the long-term future of rail.
Speaking at the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation (CIHT) spring conference, he said: ‘If there is a permanent reduction in travel to work by public transport then I think there is no doubt that we will have to reduce the capacity of public transport and maybe of the infrastructure.
‘I was speaking to the chancellor three weeks ago and he said: “what are you going to do if railway travel is at 80% of its previous high?” I said the right thing to do in economic terms is to take some of the infrastructure and some of the trains out of commission.
‘But I wonder if that is going to be a permanent feature because there is not a lot of evidence that cities are going to decline. They might grow less quickly. Also, before the pandemic, our networks were very full of people, in some cases far too full. Maybe some of the enhances we were planning won’t be necessary.’
The uncertainty could be compounded by the economic scarring and long-term decline of the high street, he added.
The COVID crisis also delayed the long-expected Williams Review into wider rail reforms. The review by former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams into how the network is managed was commissioned by the government after the timetabling ‘calamity’ – Sir Peter’s words - of May 2018.
‘I am quoting ministers on this, very shortly a white paper will be published and it will propose the reform of the railway for the 21st century,’ the Network Rail chairman said.
Sir Peter suggested all the political support lay behind Mr Williams’ concept of an ‘independent guiding mind’ to manage the entire network, with Network Rail potentially subsumed within that overall structure.
‘I think in the light of COVID with the ability of franchisees to take revenue risk, bringing the structure of the railway together so there are people in charge of running it as a complete system is wholly sensible. Keith I know is sympathetic, the secretary of state is sympathetic, I can tell you the prime minister is sympathetic and I am entirely convinced that’s the right thing to do. It won’t be a Network Rail takeover.
‘Andrew Haines our chief executive and I are not concerned about the long-term future of Network Rail; we are concerned about what it does and the people who work for it but we are very happy for that to be subsumed into some sort of rail authority [that would] take control of running the thing as a network and that is the way I think Williams is going to go. And I am very optimistic that not long after the May elections we will get the white paper.’