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  1. Analysis
May 20, 2021

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail: Reaction from the industry

Announced today, the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail is considered the biggest shake-up of the UK railway industry in more than 25 years. The plan, which sees the introduction of a national body named Great British Railways, has attracted mixed reviews from industry stakeholders. Here, we look into some of them.

By Ilaria Grasso Macola

The UK Government has today announced its reform plan for the country’s railway system, replacing the rail franchising system, which has been in effect since 1996.

Drafted by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Keith Williams, chair of the Williams review, the plan – which will be put in place in 2023 – includes the creation of a new public body, Great British Railways.

The body will integrate the railway system, owning infrastructure and collecting fare revenue. Great British Railways will also be in charge of planning works on the network as well as setting fares and timetables.

“I am a great believer in rail, but for too long passengers have not had the level of service they deserve,” commented UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “By creating Great British Railways, and investing in the future of the network, this government will deliver a rail system the country can be proud of.”

The state-controlled body retains a role for the private sector, which will operate most train services, in a way similar to Transport for London’s Overground and Docklands Light Rail services.

“Years of fragmentation, confusion and over-complication has seen that vision fade, and passengers failed,” commented Shapps. “That complicated and broken system ends today.”

“Great British Railways marks a new era in the history of our railways,” he continued. “It will become a single familiar brand with a bold new vision for passengers – of punctual services, simpler tickets and a modern and green railway that meets the needs of the nation.”

Whilst many stakeholders welcomed the plan, others had a few reservations.


“We are heartened that the new Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail is a 30-year strategy” – Railway Industry Association (RIA)

RIA chief executive Darren Caplan welcomed the whitepaper, as it showed the government’s commitment to the sector is long-term and will enable the railway system to become net-zero and fully digitalised.

“It is right to take a long-term approach, in order to smooth boom and bust and provide more certainty for rail schemes, decarbonise and digitalise the network, deliver major projects, protect and create jobs, and foster innovation and collaboration between railway partners,” Caplan said in a statement. “We also welcome the ambition to attract passengers and freight back to the network and grow both markets.”

Caplan adds that one concern of RIA members is restructuring works being paused.

“Our major ask at this stage, however, is that the restructure of UK rail does not cause any hiatus in work being done to renew and enhance railway infrastructure or rolling stock, to ensure everyone in the industry can help rail to build back better as we emerge from the pandemic.”


“This is a missed opportunity by the government to make a clean break from the failures of the past that have left Britain’s railways in the slow lane.” – the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT)

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch lamented that despite government talks of ending fragmentation within railways, the same private companies are involved in the management of train routes.

“If the government were serious about recognising ‎the impact of failed rail policy down nearly three decades, they would cut out the middleman, strip away the dead weight of the private companies and work with their staff on building a transport system fit for the future where investment in the workforce and infrastructure comes first,” Lynch said.


“Getting the detail right will be crucial” – Rail Delivery Group (RDG)

“Getting the detail right will be crucial to ensuring that the white paper fulfils its potential to improve journeys, offer independent oversight and clear accountability, and create a new set of fares which are simpler and more value for money,” said RDG director-general Andy Bagnall.

Bagnall also welcomed the government’s decision to keep private companies on board and said that the private sector’s expertise will enable local train companies to “respond to what their customers want on the ground and attract more passengers.”

As for the new ticketing system, which allows pay-as-you-go and more flexible fares, RDG believes it is a good first step towards a clearer system. “To really maximise the benefits and make it easier for people to get good value fares requires government to go further and get under the bonnet to fix the engine of the fares system,” Bagnall continued.


“This national approach must not be a missed opportunity for further devolution” – Transport for the North

Transport for the North interim chief executive Tim Wood wants to see the government give the north more services and infrastructure investment “to deliver more integrated regional networks that works for all.”

“The commitment to growing and investing in the railway over the next 30 years only emphasises the real need for the Government to publish the Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands without delay, to give us much-needed certainty on delivery of major schemes like Northern Powerhouse Rail, HS2 and the TransPennine Route upgrade,” Wood said.


“We need an innovative, adaptable and commercially viable industry to match” – GHD

Even though it applauds measures such as flexible tickets and pay-as-you-go modes of railway travel, professional service company GHD believes that this is only a first step and that the industry needs to adapt to changing technology and passenger habits.

“Travel patterns and passenger behaviours will continue to evolve, and we need an innovative, adaptable, and commercially viable industry to match,” said GHD transport market leader Jonathan Edwards. “This means running the newly proposed Great British Railways more like a business rather than a government department and ensuring we get the benefits of both public and private enterprise under the new arrangement.”

What is also needed, said Edwards, is a greater integration of the railway system with the road, freight and aviation networks. “A strong multi-modal network and public transport system will boost productivity and be critical to the levelling up agenda,” he added.


“We will need clarity on how the industry transitions to these new arrangements” – Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE)

ACE, which represents companies that design and manage infrastructure, raised questions about the financial aspect of the project, saying that transitioning to an economically sustainable is key – especially after the emergency investments provided during the pandemic.

“Moving to a new simplified organisational structure will enable better strategic decision-making which balances financial considerations, ambitions for us to build back better post-pandemic, and Net Zero goals,” said ACE director of policy Matthew Farrow.

ACE also raised how the transition will take place.

“With much of the detail still to be revealed and two years before the new system is in place, we will need clarity on how the industry transitions to these new arrangements,” Farrow added.


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