The Government has no idea of the true level of accessibility throughout Britain’s 2,500 train stations, the chair of the independent rail review has revealed to MPs.
Keith Williams, former chief executive of British Airways, has been tasked with a root and branch review of Britain’s railway and was speaking to the Transport Select Committee as the review prepares to make its final recommendations in a White Paper this autumn.
He told MPs: ‘We have been looking at accessibility. It has been a learning exercise for me. If one platform in a station is accessible the whole station is considered accessible. We have 2,500 stations in Britain and we don’t really know how many are accessible.
‘We learned the degree of knowledge of accessibility is partly the result of the fragmentation of rail today.’
He added that there ‘was plenty of money’ to address accessibility but that it was in different pots and needed to be pooled together and invested on the basis of a national action plan.
This could be centred around the major stations and routes into them, he suggested, pointing out that 85 stations carry 60% of passengers.
Mr Williams went on to provide an outline of the recommendations he will make to Government, which he said attempted to set a framework for service contracts that would deliver the best results for the public.
Central to his planning is the concept of a ‘guiding mind’ – a public body that would sit at the heart of the sector with integrated responsibility for track and trains and capable of contracting out services.
Mr Williams was pushed by MPs on the exact nature of this body and though it remained somewhat vague his closest approximation appears to be a national Transport for London type organisation, which primarily contracts out services on a concession basis, but also keeps some services in-house like London Underground.
Mr Williams argued that his recommendations would be flexible enough to allow any government to take forward different strategies of ownership in future, nationalisation or privatisation, while setting up a system that worked for the passenger.
Ending the fragmentation of the system and the argumentative blame culture between its different elements was a key priority, he suggested. He said that his former employer British Airways has an annual income greater that the £11bn of the railways but has nothing like the fragmentation.
He argued that in airways, the type of arguments you find in rail - for instance over who should pay for a delay caused by a bird hitting and overhead wire - were never seen and people were focused on outcomes.
He also argued local government could have more of a role in deciding future investments but would have to work within a single network system.
In the short-term he said there was a need to produce a standardised, national compensation scheme, which would save money in terms of the economies of scale and provide a clear code of practice as to passengers’ rights.
In the longer-term he said there was a need for a 30-year assessment of the needs of the network and legislative changes would be needed further down the line. He highlighted decarbonisation as one issue that would need long-term planning.
‘Trains last 30 years, if we have decarbonisation targets for 2050, so those decisions need to be considered now,’ he told MPs.
He also reiterated previous points, supported by government he said, that fares, ticketing and franchising all needed an overhaul. He suggested contracts for services could be given a longer timescales to allow more consistent improvements.
Commuter lines could be focused on reliability targets while longer distance rail routes could put more of a premium on innovation, he argued, as part of a system that is adapted to passenger needs..
He had been consulted on the recently let West Coast franchise and said the contract was flexible enough to be in line with the type of new system he was hoping to achieve.
‘We have said the role of the DfT will change and be much more strategic than it is today. Today it is involved in the minutia of many aspects of rail and we don’t see that as our lead option in the future.’
DfT permanent secretary Bernadette Kelly supports the need for change, he said, adding that the ‘government seems favourably inclined to the recommendation’.
He added that the unions and the passengers would welcome change.