Britain’s rail industry will “drive passengers away” if it continues to operate as it does now, according to the man leading the government-commissioned review into the working of the railways.
Keith Williams, the former British Airways chief executive, also suggested that the government had compounded problems by “micromanaging the industry” through ever more specific rail franchises.
Speaking midway through a public consultation in his year-long review on the railways, Williams said he believed the industry needed “to reorientate towards the customer”, adding that it had taken the growth in passengers for granted.
Referencing the recent national survey that showed passengers’ satisfaction with the railway had dipped to an 11-year-low, Williams said: “Some passengers are put off entirely in making journeys because they lack the certainty of getting to their destination when they want to get there.
“There’s dissatisfaction with communication and dealing with delay. Passengers want to see a railway system that they can feel confident in and they know who is accountable when things go wrong.”
Speaking in Westminster to MPs and rail industry professionals, Williams said he had consistent feedback from passengers and representative groups demanding more focus on rail’s customers: “There is a fear that if we continue as we are we will drive people away from the railways over time.”
Quoting data from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) showing a decline in patronage in 2017-18, after two decades of almost constant growth, Williams warned: “There is a message out there that we need to take about passengers. My observation is that we have tended to take the recent growth of passengers for granted.”
The review was commissioned by the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, in September 2018 after a damning report from the ORR into the chaotic introduction of a new timetable last May that threw rail services into disarray. Thousands of trains were cancelled or seriously delayed, particularly across Northern and Govia Thameslink Railway franchises, during the early summer. Passengers on many routes have also experienced years of disruption through strikes and engineering works, against a backdrop of fares rising faster than inflation.
Williams said that he and the review panel were getting “almost everywhere we go … a sense that the government micromanages the industry”.
He said rail franchise agreements had changed over time, damaging innovation: “As reliability and punctuality has fallen … the natural tendency is to put more and more in contracts.”
Williams hinted he was open to solutions that could involve public or private control – praising both Chiltern, let on one of the longest franchises, and publicly owned Merseyrail – but said they would would evolve from the “commercial and customer model we are trying to put in place”.
The durability of the current rail franchising model has been thrown into question, even among supporters of privatisation, after the collapse of Virgin Trains East Coast in 2018.
Unions and Labour have argued that full-scale renationalisation of the rail industry is needed. Williams said: “In certain quarters there is a rush to get to how the industry should be structured. Lets start by focusing on what we want to get to and why we want to want to get there. The appropriate structure – the how we get there – will fall into place.”
The Williams review panel is due to report in the autumn, leading to a government white paper and potential legislation to reform the rail industry in 2020.