Williams-Shapps rail plan: Gaps remain as rail reform promises 'new era'


Ministers have pledged to end a quarter of a century of fragmentation on the railways by bringing them under ‘single, accountable national leadership’ through the 'Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail'.

The Department for Transport said a new public body, Great British Railways (GBR), will integrate the railways, ‘owning the infrastructure, collecting fare revenue, running and planning the network, and setting most fares and timetables’.

It added that ‘there will remain a substantial and often greater role for the private sector’ with GBR contracting private ‘partners’ to operate most trains to the timetables and fares it specifies, ‘with a model similar to that used by Transport for London in its successful Overground and Docklands Light Railway services’.

Officials said GBR will simplify the current mass of confusing tickets with new flexible season tickets and a significant roll-out of more convenient pay-as-you-go, contactless and digital ticketing on smartphones. However, very little detail on these issues has been provided.

A new GBR website will sell tickets and a single compensation system for operators in England will provide a simple system for passengers to access information and apply for refunds.

Mr Williams and Mr Shapps pose for the cameras

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: ‘Years of fragmentation, confusion and over-complication have seen passengers failed. That complicated and broken system ends today.'

Keith Williams, chair of the Williams Review on which the plan is based, said: ‘Our Plan is built around the passenger, with new contracts which prioritise excellent performance and better services, better value fares and creating clear leadership and real accountability when things go wrong.’

The DfT said new National Rail Contracts, which will be in operation for two years and act as a bridge to reform, will be announced this year.

Officials added that local communities will work closely with GBR on designing services with local leaders given greater control over local ticketing, timetables and stations.

However, the plan itself states: ‘Further detail on the involvement of local leaders in rail and other transport services and the levers available to them will be set out in the levelling up white paper in due course.’

Tim Wood, interim chief executive at Transport for the North, said: ‘This is a major national moment and a shift in how the railway is run. But this national approach must not be a missed opportunity for further devolution, giving the North’s leaders greater oversight of services and infrastructure investment to deliver more integrated regional networks that work for all.’

Flexible ticketing offer remains vague

Another area on which very little detail has been given is the pledge of flexible season tickets. As Transport Network has reported, these will be based on the existing carnet model with discounts against the price of peak-time daily tickets.

Under the national model, carnet tickets will allow travel on any eight days in a 28-day period. The new product will be on sale from 21 June, for use by 28 June.

The DfT said commuters travelling two and three days a week would be offered ‘potential savings of hundreds of pounds against daily and season tickets’. However it added that ‘exact details of savings will be provided before tickets go on sale’ and has not stated what level of discount will be offered.

Despite promising savings against season tickets, the DfT provided a series of examples of potential annual savings ‘compared to the cost of daily tickets’.

It remains possible that large numbers of passengers travelling three days a week will continue to find it cheaper to buy tickets that cover the whole week, particularly if they buy annual season tickets.

Transport Network has asked the DfT to clarify whether commuters using flexible season tickets three days a week be better off than buying a weekly season.

A rail industry source told Transport Network that it was likely that the absence of detail reflected the fact that discussions were still going on within government over the level of discount.

As Transport Network has reported, it is believed that the Treasury is reluctant to fund the revenue loss of significant discounts.

Although the plan pledges the expansion of pay-as-you-go outside London, it does not state that this will include retrospective capping, as happens in the capital.

The Rail Delivery Group, some of whose functions will be transferred to GBR, called flexible tickets and more pay-as-you-go ‘good news for passengers’.

However, director general Andy Bagnall added: ‘To really maximise the benefits and make it easier for people to get good value fares requires government to go further and get under the bonnet to fix the engine of the fares system.’

Labour’s shadow transport secretary, Jim McMahon, said: ‘Nearly three years after it was commissioned, this report raises more questions than it answers. With fare hikes, £1bn cuts to Network Rail and broken promises to communities across the country, it’s yet another example of ministers talking a good game, with very little substance underneath.

‘A lack of proper detail on flexible tickets and whether it will make travel cheaper for the average commuter renders it meaningless for millions and completely fails to meet the scale of challenge required to encourage people back onto the rail network post-pandemic.’

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