23 March 2021

Rail review delayed for PM to hold talks on cost – report

23 March 2021

Publication of a major review of Britain’s railways has been further delayed to enable Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak to hold talks on the cost of overhauling the industry, it has been reported.

Plans to release a White Paper incorporating the recommendations of the Government-commissioned Williams Review before Easter have been scrapped, according to the Daily Telegraph.

The chaotic introduction of new timetables in May 2018 led the Department for Transport to appoint then-Royal Mail chairman Keith Williams to carry out a review of the railways.

A White Paper based on his findings was initially due to be published in autumn 2019 but was delayed by the general election and the coronavirus pandemic.

On December 9, rail minister Chris Heaton-Harris told the Commons’ Transport Select Committee that “it will be out, all being well, within the next six weeks”.

This is an opportunity for generational change on the railway

Mr Williams has called for an end to franchising and an overhaul of the fares system.

Industry sources told the newspaper that there is concern in the Treasury about the cost of sweeping reforms, leading to a meeting next week between the Prime Minister and Mr Sunak.

That means a target a publishing the White Paper before the pre-election period for May’s local elections will not be achieved.

The Government has taken on the financial liabilities of franchised operators since March 2020 to keep services running amid the collapse in demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which is expected to cost around £10 billion by mid-2021.

A Department for Transport (DfT) spokeswoman said: “We intend on publishing a White Paper when the course of the pandemic becomes clearer.”

A spokesman for industry body the Rail Delivery Group said train companies have “long called for reform” and want to see the White Paper published “as quickly as possible”.

He went on: “This is an opportunity for generational change on the railway, which could deliver hassle-free and better value fares, a new independent arms-length body to bring all parts of the industry together, and new contracts which give operators the freedom to focus on delivering against our passengers’ priorities.”

Paul Tuohy, chief executive of pressure group the Campaign for Better Transport, said: “The Government must publish the Williams Review as soon as possible after the local elections and without any further delays.

“To help commuters returning to workplaces this summer, we need to see ticketing reforms expediated and things like flexible season tickets available for when lockdown ends.”

The Daily Telegraph also reported that the Operator of Last Resort (OLR) – the state-owned firm that takes on failed train operators – warned in accounts filed at Companies House that it was “not sufficiently well equipped to manage any further franchise operations should it be required”.

Services on the Northern and London North Eastern Railway routes are already being run by the OLR.

The DfT spokeswoman said it is “entirely appropriate” for the firm to “identify any potential risks”.

She added: “The company works closely with the department to ensure it has the capacity and expertise to take on additional rail franchises, if necessary.”

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