Independent rail review should consider all options

As speculation mounts that government is set to announce a rail review, the RDG has been setting out why it believes that a review needs to start by looking at how best to organise the railway to enable greater investment and innovation, and to better join up different parts of the industry so that they can focus on the needs of local communities and people who use the railway.

Only then should the discussion focus on how to achieve the right balance between the public and private sectors in running the railway. Read this piece from our CEO, Paul Plummer, in today’s Daily Telegraph.

If rumours are to be believed, the Government will, as early as next week, announce a review into how rail services are delivered.

As the companies running the railway today, we want to see change and a serious examination of how to improve the railway, which looks far wider than just the franchising system.

Any reforms must lay the foundations for a railway that can deliver for a generation to come. This means a review that looks at each and every part of the railway. Now is not the time for self-interest or decisions based on political ideology. We need to follow the evidence to reform the railway in the country’s best long-term interests.

This desire for change is why, last year, in an unprecedented coming together rail companies set out a unified, long-term plan pledging to boost the economy, better connect communities, improve customer satisfaction and provide more and better jobs for our people. If done well, a review should help to turbo-charge the delivery of these commitments. 

Since the 1990s when private companies took over running trains, much has changed. Passengers have doubled, safety is amongst the best in Europe and rail freight has been revived, keeping lorries off the road. Furthermore, taxpayers are benefiting from a £2.2bn dividend as the railway’s operating costs have been transformed. 

However, the challenges facing the network today – squeezing more trains onto tracks which resemble the M25 in rush hour, harnessing technology so that rail keeps pace with innovations in other modes of transport, attracting investment when taxpayer funding is squeezed – require the whole railway system to be reengineered. 

From Network Rail’s routes and train companies at the frontline to Government and regulators behind the scenes, the role of every organisation involved in the railway should be considered. And, while a review must be based on hard evidence of what works, all options should be on the table. 

For these reasons, and so that the country can have confidence in any proposed reforms to such a vital public service, a review should be independently led. Anything less risks the perception of a politically motivated fudge that fails to deliver the best outcome both for our customers and for the nation. What’s needed is an open and transparent debate so that the recommendations of a review have broad support from customers, the public and across the political spectrum.

Undoubtedly, it is sensible to take time to ensure that we have the very best underlying structure for running our railway. But with over 200,000 people employed in rail and 4.5million people using it every day, it is equally important to avoid a state of limbo. We must therefore be allowed to get on with delivering our plan to introduce 6,400 extra services a week and 7,000 new carriages by the early 2020s. 

This summer, we have conducted the biggest consultation in living memory on reforming rail fares. This will inform proposals for governments to overhaul out-of-date regulations that result in a system which causes confusion and frustration, puts people off travelling and stifles innovation. Our efforts to make it simpler and easier for people to get the best deal for their journey must not stall. 

Equally, the people who use the railway every day and the communities and businesses who rely on it must not be denied improvements that are already in the pipeline or which are enabled by innovation and investment happening today. So, we must continue to promote change while we debate the long-term future.

The real mark of success for any review though will be the extent to which it leads to concrete change that is supported by customers and the wider public. A genuinely reformed railway will unlock a new generation of innovation and investment that is driven by competition and choice for customers best delivered, we believe the evidence will show, by the public and private sectors working together. It must enable the companies at the frontline of delivering services to be more agile and responsive to the changing needs and expectations of their customers and the communities they serve. 

This means creating a system that gives governments the confidence to step back from well-meaning detail like specifying the number of carriages for a specific train, and to focus instead on the broader social and economic outcomes they want the railway to enable. 

A better model for our railway will ensure that the cost of running it does not rise, protecting taxpayers and passengers. It will align the objectives of the engineers responsible for the tracks with the customer-facing staff who run the trains. It will ensure that the thousands of dedicated people who work tirelessly to keep the service running have long, fulfilling careers, with a greater stake in the railway’s future.

Above all, though, a successfully reformed railway will have customers and communities at its heart. It will enable the companies responsible for delivering rail services to focus relentlessly on what is best for the people and the local areas they serve and, in doing so, to deliver value for money for the taxpayer who helps to fund it. 

There are no straightforward answers. What is certain is that changes that are overly simplistic or knee-jerk in their nature will not achieve the transformation in rail services that everyone wants. But real change which makes the railway easier and better for customers, businesses and communities is possible. It demands big, broad and independent thinking. Our customers and the country deserve nothing less.

Reproduced with permission from The Daily Telegraph

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