The former Transport Secretary Chris Grayling was widely criticised during his time in post for what was viewed as perpetual dithering. The mood of Government back then could broadly be characterised as risk averse when it came to the rail industry. Rail was not viewed as a major priority and evolution rather than revolution was always the preferred option where possible.
Well, as the new Government takes shape, I think we can safely say that those days are over, and the decision this week to bring Northern Rail into public ownership neatly demonstrates this. The Government know full well that on one level nationalising a rail operator plays into the opposition’s hands. Indeed, the Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald jovially wished the audience a ‘happy re-nationalisation day’ at an industry reception on Wednesday. But the Government made a calculation and decided that the damage done by appearing to concede to Labour on Northern Rail was still less than the damage of doing nothing. The appetite for evolution is dwindling, the attitude for revolution is rising, and the public desire for decisive action is higher than ever.
But what does this shift in the Government’s attitude mean for the future of the industry? Well, any discussion about rail right now needs to be put into the context of the Williams Review, the Government commissioned ‘root and branch’ review into how we run our railways, which is due to be published in the coming weeks. The Williams Review findings will be announced at a time when rail has been making headlines, from Northern Rail to HS2, and Keith Williams will be thrilled that his proposals are coming out when rail is higher on the agenda than it has been in years.
Most in the industry are clear on the headline proposals of the Williams Review: the establishment of a new national rail body to join up track and train; an overhaul of the franchising system with a move towards concession-style passenger service contracts, and a big further drive towards devolution of decision-making. Fares reform is on the way too, although this is understood to be one of the remaining sticking points holding up publication.
Unusually, the review isn’t just a regular review but a fully-fledged White Paper. So we should expect the Government to adopt all of the findings and move towards implementation. No-one wants the status quo and change is on the way. The acid test will be getting the man on 07:57 from Surbiton-Waterloo, or the woman on the 11:10 from Leeds-Manchester, to really believe it will make a difference. Change on the railways is never fast, and never easy. Good luck Mr Williams!