Event report: Where next for Rail Reform?

The recently published Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail is the start of a journey, setting out the vision and principles for reform, Charlotte Clarke, Deputy Director, Rail Reform, Department for Transport, told attendees at a RFG webinar on 23 June.

There is a lot of work to do through detailed engagement with the sector to design and deliver the reforms, she explained. But there is no doubt that a key outcome will be to bring track and train together with Great British Railways (GBR) acting as a guiding mind for the system with a single national leadership.

There are eight chapters in the White Paper including one titled: “Unleashing the private sector potential – how to support freight, digital connectivity and the supply chain”.

Charlotte said there is a commitment to have greater opportunities for rail freight growth and strong safeguards put in place to ensure freight operators receive fair access to the railway. GBR will have a statutory duty to promote rail freight and the government acknowledges that rail freight is integral to its ambitions related to Net Zero carbon targets.

There will be a single point of contact for the freight business, with the creation of a national freight co-ordination team.

Ed Wilson, Programme Director [Freight Reforms], Network Rail, said there would be no immediate sudden changes from a structural perspective and so a transition team is being set up to develop the Interim Guiding Mind (IGM).

One of its roles is “to develop and deliver a freight offer that is consistently the economically and environmentally compelling mode of choice for its customers”.

Ed explained that the current thinking, and subject to ministerial approval, is to develop a freight directorate operating model in the IGM, creating a single point of accountability across the public institutions for developing rail freight, ultimately bringing together all the decision-making levers into a single place.

He added that the freight directorate must have the ‘ethos of the logistician’ at its heart and work closely and in stronger partnership with the market to deliver growth. Its ambition is to deliver upon the growth forecasts which see the doubling of freight volumes in the next 10-15 years.

IGM targets include developing a market development plan and centre for rail freight advice, as well as a new suite of incentives for ria freight including modal shifts and decarbonisation.

In the Q&A session, Charlotte said that the department anticipates it could be late 2022 before a bill to implement the reforms is introduced, due to the scale of work involved – not least the in-depth consultation with all stakeholders.

She explained that it was recognised that a new organisation was needed with a new culture and different set of skills. It will not just be a rebranding of Network Rail.

Ed explained that the crux of the reform is a new structure that allows decisions to be made in one place. He gave the example of looking at a passenger service with very few users and being able to consider that running a freight service in that path would be of greater public benefit by taking lorries off the road.

That raised the question of the arbitration role of the ORR. The new access regime will be underpinned by legislation but the question would be asked “what do freight operators need from ORR?”

Both speakers emphasized the importance of engagement with all stakeholders in the freight sector, so RFG will help promote all opportunities for members to be involved in the discussion and we will run regular ‘update’ webinars on this.

You can access the presentations below and a recording of the webinar here.