A new future for our railway? What the Williams Review means for Wales  

Since British Rail was privatised in the 1990s, successive UK Governments of all parties have said that the model’s performance has not met its expectations of a modern network. Mounting criticism amongst lawmakers both in Westminster and Cardiff Bay has been accompanied by a two-decade increase in passengers, to record levels, before the Covid-19 pandemic.

At least two major Whitehall reviews since the 2000s can be linked with attempts to reform the system. Now, The Williams Rail Review is slated by the UK Government as a ‘root and branch’ review of Britain’s railway. Independently chaired by the former chief executive of British Airways, Keith Williams, the review is supported by a panel of experts from all parts of the country with expertise in rail and freight, along with business and passenger interests. From Wales, this includes Margaret Llewellyn OBE – Chair of Network Rail’s Route Supervisory Board and non-executive director of the Development Bank of Wales.

There is much anticipation ahead of the review’s report. It was supposed to be published in Autumn 2019. However, due to the snap general election in December, this was initially postponed until 2020. With a revised window of spring, its publication was delayed further due to Covid-19. Last month, and in response to written questions submitted by parliamentarians, UK transport ministers outlined a new window for publication later this year.

The Government’s answer came after the review, and the date of its publication, has been mentioned no fewer than 18 times in written Parliamentary Questions since December’s election. In the Senedd, the Williams Review has been mentioned no fewer than 28 times by MSs over the last 2 years.

There was also confirmation that new delays are due to the review being revised as the rail industry meets new challenges and operational arrangements caused by Covid-19. It may now, therefore, be published as a ‘review’ rather than a White Paper. This means that not all of its recommendations could find their way into future UK government policy and legislation. However, the UK Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, told the House of Commons Transport Select Committee that the current franchising system cannot continue. The Prime Minister also announced his intention to devolve more rail powers as part of the Williams Review.

The focus of the review is weighted on passenger experience and freight, and this metric has been used to inform how improvements can be made. In a series of interim papers published during the initial review period, the three core aims were shared:

  • Tackling the fragmentation, short-termism, lack of accountability and conflicting interests which result from the current structures of the network
  • Ensuring that Britain’s railways are financially sustainable for both taxpayers and users
  • Improving accessibility

We can all see how the rail system across Great Britain varies in reach, modernisation, devolved control and franchising. Therefore the Williams Review’s comprehensive set of recommendations will vary in impact depending on nation and region.

The situation in Wales is unique. The Welsh Government has similar powers to those the UK and Scottish Governments as a franchising authority, along with being track owner and operator. However, Cardiff has no role in setting remits for any of the rail regulator’s directors. Furthermore, Wales does not benefit from the same funding or control of infrastructure compared to Scotland.

The current Wales Franchise is also much more a concession than a franchise, in railway terms, so is probably closer to the Williams Report’s intention than elsewhere in England. It should also be said that the current Wales Franchise includes a lot of Enhancement to the Cardiff Valley Lines which will be carried out largely independent of Network Rail.

During the review’s consultation period, the Welsh Government provided their contribution in December 2018. Ken Skates MS, Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport outlined that despite containing 11% of route length, 11% of stations, and 20% of level crossing in England and Wales, only 2% of network enhancements have been spent in the country since 2011. This data influenced the Welsh Government’s submission to the review that called for more devolved powers and spending control. You can read a summary of the Welsh Government’s submission to the review here.

Due to its commitment to “put passengers first’, a great deal of media attention on the Williams Review so far has centred on operations and passenger experience. For CECA members, the crucial elements will be found in its recommendations on:

  • Delivering new rail infrastructure in the UK
  • Unlocking capacity through relieving congestion and enhancing regional connectivity
  • Planning for long-term network operation – building up domestic supply chains, and rail electrification for efficiency and low-carbon journeys

CECA’s response to the two stages of the Williams Review asked for a review of the highly contractual way in which access is provided to allow renewal and enhancement work to be carried out. You can read a summary of CECA’s submission to the review here.

We can be fairly confident that, even if just some of its recommendations are adopted by the UK Government, the Williams Review will reshape the future of rail in Wales. We will know for sure when it is finally made public later this year. As for its true impact, like with all government publications and plans, the devil will be in the detail.

Jake Kelly joined CECA National in March 2020 after spending his career to date working for Members of Parliament both in Yorkshire and Westminster and on campaigns across the North of England. In previous roles, Jake led successful campaigns on public transport improvements and progressing a Beeching re-opening bid. In Parliament, he led on establishing the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Transport Across the North, in partnership with Transport for the North. Jake’s principal areas of public affairs work currently include strengthening relationships with the Westminster Opposition and UK Parliamentarians, rail, and pipeline visibility.