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The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail – highlights and next steps

20 May 2021

The UK government has announced significant reforms to the operation and development of the railways in Great Britain. Beyond the headline announcements, what else needs to happen?

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail – highlights and next steps

The UK government has published a set of reform proposals to the way Britain’s railways operate (Northern Ireland is part of a different system). The proposals, called the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, build on the Williams Rail Review, a consultation which closed almost two years ago.

What’s in the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail?

The review, delayed as with many other things due to the 2019 general election and the pandemic, codifies much of what had been accelerated by the Covid-19 lockdown. 

Notably, it replaces the previous system of rail franchising with outsourced concessions delivering services to a standardised system. A new flexible part-time ticketing system will match changing use patterns by passengers.

Great British Railways created

The main announcement is that a new body, Great British Railways, will oversee the new standardised system. The new body will also reintegrate track and train operations under one organisation with Network Rail, the current owners of track, brought under Great British Railways.

Other announcements include making the system more responsive to changes in local need, with further detail coming in the levelling up White Paper later this year (see our Queen’s Speech summary on what the levelling up White Paper needs to include).

New 30-year strategy

The key announcement, for those interested in how the rail system will be developed, is the plan for a new 30-year strategy for rail development. This will “provide clear, long-term plans for transforming the railways to strengthen collaboration, unlock efficiencies and incentivise innovation.”

However, capital funding will continue to be allocated in five-year periods.

A long-term enhancements strategy is something ICE called for as part of our submission to the Williams Rail Review in 2019:

“Replace stop-start funding periods with a longer-term rail investment pipeline, particularly with the significant amount of investment required in the Digital Railway and decarbonisation of the rail network. This will help provide certainty to the industry and investors and foster a culture of innovation and skills development.”

What comes next?

The secretary of state for transport has commissioned a ‘Whole Industry Strategic Plan’ for publication in 2022. This will set out the long-term strategic drivers ministers will use to hold Great British Railways to account, which will “ensure that the railways respond to public priorities such as levelling up, the environment, housing and regeneration”.

From ICE’s perspective, the best way to keep core enhancements of the 30-year strategy focused on the long-term and delivering for tomorrow's passenger is to utilise the guidance and assessments of the National Infrastructure Commission as adopted in the National Infrastructure Strategy.

What else needs to happen to implement the spirit of the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail?

In three areas, further policy thinking is needed to turn the aspiration into reality.

  1. The plan aspires to ensure the rail system, both operation and capital development, can respond more quickly to changes in local need. Sub-national transport bodies are the way in which the gap between national and local projects can be filled, and we would want to see these bodies playing a strong role in any devolved approach.
  2. Secondly, while Network Rail manages all track across Great Britain, in Scotland, Wales and other devolved areas such as London and Merseyside, contracts and fares are set at that level. The Plan recognises this, but is light on detail on how Great British Railways will interact with these existing bodies. This needs to be considered urgently.
  3. Lastly, there are many linked policy announcements needed to fill in the strategic picture about the future direction of the railways. The Union Connectivity Review, the Integrated Rail Plan for the Midlands and the North, and the Transport Decarbonisation Plan to name the three most important. All three have been delayed and, until they are published, work cannot begin on the 30-year strategy for rail.

So while it's good to see a more strategic approach to rail enhancements, there are a few additional questions that need to be addressed to ensure the public get the rail system they need. Read a summary of ICE’s submission to the Williams Rail Review here.

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  • Chris Richards, director of policy at Institution of Civil Engineers