Cllr Andrea Davis, Chair of the Peninsula Rail Task Force, comments on the Williams Rail Review and what the future of rail in the South West should look like…

When the Williams Rail Review was announced in December 2018, the Peninsula Rail Task Force (PRTF) welcomed it, albeit with some apprehension as to whether or not it would deliver what is truly needed for the South West rail network.

The PRTF was formed in 2012 in the aftermath of severe flooding across the region. The resulting railway closures had a devastating impact upon the South West’s economy. Local authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships and key stakeholders came together to campaign, as a united voice, for greater investment in the region’s rail to ensure a strategic rail network fit for purpose.

Following the collapse of the rail line at Dawlish in Spring 2014, along with flooding of the Somerset Levels and the closure of the line between Cowley Bridge at Exeter, PRTF was invited by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, to come forward with a strategic rail blueprint, ‘Closing the Gap’. Our message was clear: that there must be long term plans for real enhancements to our rail network.

Five years on, the PRTF is still campaigning hard for a resilient and reliable railway, one that can offer sufficient capacity and comfort for passengers, and that can offer faster journey times, with improved connectivity.

In forming our response to the Williams Review, we have had the opportunity to reflect, and comment, on some of the emerging conclusions that are already being drawn. With so many players within the industry, both public and private sector, Keith Williams now has the responsibility of recommending much needed industry changes that will shape the future vision for our railways. It can only be hoped that he is ambitious and innovative enough in his white paper, and also that the industry is ready for what he recommends.

We hope that the most fundamental of these changes will be the introduction of a strategic body. This body would take an overarching approach to interpreting government policy into a strategic framework.

At present the industry is managed cyclically through a series of disconnected statements, and decisions that are made through a number of bodies including the Department for Transport (franchise specifications), and the Rail Delivery Group (fares). This is a fragmented operating model and looks at issues in isolation, rather than taking a coherent strategic approach. This often results in a lack of consistency, transparency and, at times, confusion, for stakeholders and partners alike.

The complexity of the rail industry, and the fact that different parties may have conflicting objectives, can also make it challenging for stakeholders to engage effectively. In 2011, Devon County Council started the development of a proposal for a new railway station at Marsh Barton, Exeter. The station would serve a major industrial estate, as well as the South West Exeter urban extension. In order to promote effective coordination, cooperation and a shared responsibility between the key organisations, the relevant parties entered into a memorandum of understanding.

Although members ratified the agreement, there were changes in standards and differences in assessing priorities that have resulted in significant delay to the project, as well as major cost increases. It will have taken ten years from initial concept to station opening. The project has only able to proceed because the promoters and their partners have agreed to make significant additional funding available.

This difficulty of managing competing goals between public and private sector is also a challenging process. This is another reason for supporting a strategic framework that the rail industry can look to in the decision-making process. With the guidance or authority of a strategic body to take a balanced view on the needs of the railway, its stakeholders, and its users, the Marsh Barton project may well have been delivered earlier, and at far lower cost.

This fragmentation also means that there is a lack of clear long-term planning within the industry. At present, Network Rail operates within five-year Control Periods, whilst franchises generally work to a seven-year term. Misaligned planning timeframes can be a significant barrier to achieving consistent improvements across the region.

To add to this, the decision by Government to separate the planning of enhancements from the routine maintenance activities of Network Rail for the period of the CP6 five-year budget has introduced a further element of fragmentation. Whilst this was implemented with the intent of reducing cost increases for enhancements, it has actually made it harder for stakeholders and partners to understand the overall vision for the route.

In our 20-year blueprint for the South West region, we highlighted the need for a long-term approach to our rail network improvements. Quick fixes will not suffice. A long-term plan, with greater investment is needed. For far too long the South West peninsula, like other regions across the UK, has received substantially less spend per head when compared to areas such as London, the North West and West Midlands.

These deep-rooted inequalities between regions have resulted in a disjointed railway that has developed at extraordinarily different rates. PRTF seeks an industry structure that takes the differing needs of all regions into account. It should be a coherent long-term strategy for developing each of the rail routes to meet growth in passengers and freight. There needs to be a balance between the multi-billion-pound projects such as Crossrail and HS2, and the equally necessary works to ensure resilience of the railways, such as at Dawlish. There needs to be more focus on reducing journey times of existing lines and improving connectivity to more peripheral regions such as the South West.

The rail industry needs to be ready to innovate, and less willing to disrupt passengers. An example of this is the Voyager train fleet. When the Voyager fleet was introduced in 2001 for the CrossCountry service, it soon became apparent that the trains were susceptible to failure upon encountering sea spray whilst passing along the sea wall at Dawlish. Attempts were initially made to resolve the problems by using software modifications, but these proved unsuccessful. The South West has since had to endure 17 years of CrossCountry services regularly being forced to terminate early at Exeter, with little sign of a resolution.

In the March update on the review, Keith Williams said that there must be a ‘much stronger focus on passengers…(and) passengers must be at the heart of the future of railway.’ It is clear from looking at the issue with the Voyager fleet that in the past passengers’ interests have clearly not been the focus, and perhaps reflects the attitude that passenger disruption is acceptable.

PRTF understands that further modifications to the fleet to mitigate the problem are belatedly under consideration, and we look forward to seeing the results.

Focus on passengers, along with value for money for taxpayers and impacts on wider society, were three top-level objectives highlighted for the review. The latter needs to be carefully considered by Williams. If we look back to the now infamous 1963 report by Dr Richard Beeching, ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’, some now argue that his proposals did not fully consider the impact of rail upon wider society. Hundreds of branch lines and rural stations were closed following his report, and communities that relied on links with neighbouring market towns and flourishing cities were cut off.

These closures were made in a time when road was the future. Times have now changed and many of the lines that were closed are now being reinstated, with rail lines such as the one between Exeter and Okehampton currently the focus of a campaign to reintroduce a regular service. This is replicated nationwide and as recently as February this year, Campaign for Better Transport called on the Government to reopen 33 rail lines and 72 stations that would bring an additional 20 million rail passenger journeys across the UK each year. Not only will this offer numerous economic and environmental benefits to areas where public transport is limited, but it will also assist in the decongestion of the highway’s networks.

The decision to ditch road for rail is driven not only by passenger choice, but also because of the awareness we now have of the impact that travel is having on the environment. With targets for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the rail industry needs to be innovative and leading the change. Keith Williams now has the responsibility to ensure that accountability and leadership for the industry are set at the right level. The Government is required to set the policy; however, those closest to the users are better placed to achieve delivery. Communication and key partnerships in the planning, transport and economy sector are also going to be crucial to this.

At the launch of the review in December, the Secretary of State’s ambition was for the panel to think, ‘boldly and creatively, challenging received wisdom’. Time will tell if this is true, although following the announcement in March by Williams that trade-offs will be necessary, the question has to be asked if the call for compromise is coming too soon…or whether the Autumn white paper will go far enough in delivering much needed change?

Cllr Andrea Davis is Chair of the Peninsula Rail Task Force. You can find out more information at: www.peninsularailtaskforce.co.uk or by info@peninsularailtaskforce.co.uk