The ORR's interim report into the May 2018 timetable disruption, the launch of the Williams Review of rail and the Government and ORR's "disappointing" responses to the Transport Select Committee's rail infrastructure inquiry all beg the question: is our rail system working?

ORR timetabling inquiry interim report

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR), the rail regulator, says not, at least as far as timetabling is concerned. They have been examining the causes of the recent timetable disruption on the Northern and Thameslink services when the new timetable was introduced on 20 May, leading to hundreds of trains a day cancelled and widespread delays. Their interim report identified a number of causes, including:

  • delays to the North West Electrification Programme caused by Network Rail, who were over-optimistic that they could make up the time

  • Network Rail's System Operator (responsible for the running of the railway including timetabling) did not take sufficient action to prevent the disruption: "nobody took control"

  • the train operators (GTR and Northern) were not sufficiently aware of or prepared for the change, and failed to keep passengers properly informed

  • the Department for Transport and the ORR did not sufficiently question the assurances they got from the industry.

The final report in December will recommend actions to ensure that this does not happen again.

Williams Review

On the same day that the ORR published their interim report, Chris Grayling the Transport Secretary announced (yet another) rail review, "the most significant since privatisation". But is it?

We have yet to see the full terms of reference for the review, which will be published after Parliament returns in October, but we do know from the press release that it seems to be predicated on franchising being the right approach. It will look at recommendations to improve the current franchising model, such as closer partnerships between the operators of track and train, and regional partnerships. All stuff we have heard before. So not exactly the "root and branch" review it is touted to be.

The Government does want to more effectively balance public and private sector investment and look at the roles and structures of all parts of the industry and how they can work together more effectively to reduce fragmentation, improve passenger services and increase accountability. Of course, Labour will argue that the best way to do this is to renationalise the railway.

The review will be chaired by Keith Williams, former Chief Executive of British Airways, and the panel will include Roger Marsh, chair of NP11, the board of 11 northern Local Enterprise Partnerships. It will take the ORR's final timetabling report into account and will report next year. Following that there will be a Government white paper on the report's recommendations, which will be implemented from 2020.

In the meantime, the Government has cancelled the Cross Country franchise competition as it thinks that awarding this in 2019 could impact on the review's conclusions. Make of that what you will, but it looks like franchises after 2020 could be very different.

Rail infrastructure investment inquiry

Finally, the Government and the ORR have responded to the Transport Select Committee's recommendations on rail investment – see our article, Rail Infrastructure Investment, for a reminder of these. It's fair to say that the Chair of the Transport Committee was not impressed: "These responses are disappointing in several respects, particularly the Department for Transport's apparent unwillingness to engage with some of our key conclusions and recommendations…We have published the responses today, without substantive comment – people can draw their own conclusions on their adequacy."

In response to the Committee's main recommendations the Government:

  • did not agree that electrification was the best approach: it would be assessed for value for money and passenger benefits against other proposals. Rail enhancements must be led by the needs they are fulfilling not the methods by which they propose to fulfil them;

  • said there was no need for a list of specific projects likely to be available for third party investment under the market-let proposals process; the point of this was that it was "market-led" so proposals should be coming from the private sector, not from Government;

  • disagreed that there were regional disparities in transport infrastructure spending and said there was no need to make it mandatory to use the rebalancing toolkit.

The Government and the ORR did agree with the Committee that the profile of spending on renewals should be smoothed. The ORR have sought to address this in their PR18 Draft Determination.

Comment

The GB rail system is not working as well as it should. The ORR are seeking to address this as best they can through the PR18 periodic review process. The review could mean the private sector ends up with more influence over the railway as track and train are looked at holistically and there is a role here for sub-national transport bodies like Transport for the North to have a real say over how the railway is run in their area.

Critics on the other hand see another review as getting Chris Grayling off the hook for a while longer. In the meantime, it will strengthen Labour's argument that the railways need to be renationalised and taken back under Government control.