The Williams Review setting out the future of railways has been re-written because 'the pandemic changed everything', says Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris

Large parts of the Government's vision for how the nation's railways will be run have had to be re-written because of the dramatic impact coronavirus has had on the industry, a Minister has revealed.

Rail Minister Chris Heaton Harris said the author of the long-awaited Williams Review, set up after the disastrous introduction of new timetables in northern England, had been going through the document "to make sure it's relevant in a post- pandemic transport environment that it will fall into".

Former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams was originally due to announce his findings in autumn 2019, with reforms beginning in 2020, but the report was delayed and has never been published because of the pandemic.

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Rail Minister Chris Heaton Harris said the author of the long-awaited Williams Review, set up after the disastrous introduction of new timetables in northern England, had been going through the document "to make sure it's relevant in a post- pandemic transport environment that it will fall into". Pic: PA

Mr Heaton-Harris said the dramatic fall in rail passengers meant the planned ending of the franchising system, which was expected to take a decade, happened in a matter of weeks as rail operators were taken under government control.

He told The Yorkshire Post: "So, some things have been speeded up quite dramatically and some things we had to look at them as you'd expect in a very sensible and common sense way to make sure that they are completely relevant for the new environment that we find ourselves in."

Since Britain's railways were privatised in the mid-1990s, the Government decided the levels of service and performance it wanted for most routes over a set number of years.

Private companies bid for the right to operate the franchises, with the Government selecting the winning candidates.

There were complaints about rising fares and poor punctuality for many years, but the chaotic introduction of new timetables in May 2018 - which caused huge disruption across Yorkshire - led the Government to accept that major reforms were required.

With passenger numbers plummeting during the first national lockdown and only partially recovering, meaning a huge fall in revenue for operators like Northern and TransPennine Express, the existing franchising system was suspended in March.

Since then the Government's Emergency Measures Agreements mean all the money from fares goes to the Government, which also takes on the financial risk of running the network to save firms from going under as a result of the slump in demand.

Northern had already been taken into public hands last January by Grant Shapps after several years of poor performance. This 'operator of last resort' arrangement was recently extended for up to five years.

And in September the Government announced that rail franchising was to be brought to an end and that a "simpler and more effective structure" would be coming.

Asked when the results of Mr Williams work should be expected, Mr Heaton-Harris said the pandemic had "changed everything".

He said: "Keith has been going through, and the Secretary of State to be fair has been working through the whole of the White Paper to make sure it's relevant in a post-pandemic transport environment that it will fall into.

"And lots of things have changed within it, because in my party's manifesto we said we're going to end franchising, in the draft that would have put out just as the pandemic struck we were talking about how it would take 10-12 years to do based on current contractual arrangements.

"That's already been done because of the nature of what's happened to rail.

"So, some things have been speeded up quite dramatically and some things we had to look at them as you'd expect in a very sensible and common sense way to make sure that they are completely relevant for the new environment that we find ourselves in."

In January, The Yorkshire Post reported that the region's two main rail operators are set to receive more than £1bn in subsidies from the Government in the year since the start of the pandemic despite carrying only a third of their usual passengers.

A report saaid the financial impact of the pandemic - which saw demand fall to just five per cent of its normal levels at its lowest point - could put the sustainability of rail services at risk in future.

And northern leaders have been told that plans to regain customers are now "essential" for train companies in order to generate the revenue to keep services going.

Transport bosses hope to tempt passengers back with promotions on cheaper journeys and more flexible train tickets while also potentially targeting motorists in the hope of persuading them to ditch their cars.

Transport for the North recently asked consultants Arup to look again at the region's priorities for rail reform, by asking local leaders and industry representatives.

One area of feedback was "concern as to what the long-term impact of Covid-19 will be on local and regional economies and travel patterns nationally and across the North".

There was "renewed support for an expanded role for Transport for the North specifically with pan-Northern and cross-boundary strategic decisions making responsibility".

But the new contracts that came in last year mean decisions are currently more likely to be made by the Department for Transport than Transport for the North's subsidiary the Rail North Committee, which is made up of local leaders.