Current rail franchising model ‘no longer delivering clear benefits’

Rail franchising “cannot continue” in its current form, according to the head of a review into Britain’s railway.

Keith Williams, chairman of the Rail Review, will tell an audience of industry leaders the way train companies are contracted to run services is “no longer delivering clear benefits”.

The Government-commissioned review was launched in September last year following weeks of chaos caused by the May timetable change.

Punctuality across Britain sank to a 13-year low in 2018, with one in seven trains delayed by at least five minutes as a series of major issues plagued the railway.

Delivering the George Bradshaw Address in central London on Tuesday night, Mr Williams is expected to say: “I have heard a great deal about the franchising model … driving growth in passengers and benefits to services.

“But with this growth the needs of passengers have changed whilst many of the basic elements of our rail system have not kept pace.

“Put bluntly, franchising cannot continue the way it is today. It is no longer delivering clear benefits for either taxpayers and fare payers.

“I believe that for the railway to be successful it needs to put passengers at its heart.

“We need to recognise that there is unlikely to be a one size fits all solution which will work for every part of the country and all types of passenger.”

Keith Williams is a former chief executive of British Airways (Rail Review/PA)
Keith Williams is a former chief executive of British Airways (Rail Review/PA)

Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: “It’s good that Mr Williams thinks rail franchising cannot continue in its current form but I don’t believe it should continue in any form.

“This must be the moment to embrace meaningful change and not mere tinkering round the edges.

“Passengers need a joined-up, transparent and properly governed railway. Only Labour’s plans for public ownership will deliver this.”

Paul Plummer, chief executive of industry body the Rail Delivery Group, said: “As we’ve long argued, maintaining the status quo on the railway is not an option.

“This review is absolutely critical to delivering the lasting change that customers, communities and the whole country expects.”

The majority of rail services in Britain are operated by fixed-term franchises, which involve the Department for Transport (DfT) setting out a specification covering areas such as service levels, upgrades and performance.

Train companies then submit bids to run the franchise and the DfT selects one of the applicants.

A report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in April last year claimed the DfT’s management of the Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) and Virgin Trains East Coast franchises was “completely inadequate”.

The GTR network was marred by an “appalling level of delays and cancellations” while the department “failed to learn the lessons from previous failings” on the East Coast route, according to the committee.

PAC chairwoman Meg Hillier said at the time that passengers are paying the price for the “broken model” of rail franchising.

The Rail Review will conclude in the autumn with a white paper setting out its findings and the Government’s plan to implement reform.