Rail review boss Keith Williams tells government to "step back from the railway" and give northern leaders a chance to shape services

The head of a major review of Britain's railways has called for the Government to step back and release control over vital decisions so that northern leaders and communities can have more of a say on how their services are run.

Former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams
Former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams

Former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams, who is leading the Government-commissioned Rail Review, told business and civic leaders at a speech in Bradford today that long-lasting reforms "must be anchored in the regions and communities — and nearer to the people — the railway serves".

Promising a 'revolution' in the train services are run following the chaos sparked by the botched introduction of a timetable on northern services last year, he said the design and culture of railways needs to be changed so it prioritises customers.

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Arguing that the Government will have to "step back from the railway", he said: "For regions like the North and cities across the country, there must be greater opportunities to influence and inform decisions about services and upgrades in your area."

Mr Williams added: "Wherever we get to, I’m clear that the railway needs a structure that enhances strategic planning, including at the local level, and facilitates better engagement on specification, and delivery of regional enhancements.

"Where there is local appetite and capability the new structure could also provide a clear way for regions or cities to make the case to operate and invest in the railway in future."

The review was launched last September after a separate investigation into disruption following a timetable change in May 2018 suggested "nobody took charge".

Former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams

The Government said the review would be "the most significant since privatisation" and will consider all parts of the sector, including accountability, the franchising system and value for money for passengers and taxpayers.

Mr Williams' findings will be presented to whoever is Prime Minister and Transport Secretary in the autumn before being turned into a white paper, while reform is said to be scheduled for 2020.

A review led by Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake with Rail Minister Andrew Jones, due to be published this summer, will argue that decisions affecting the North are being made without consideration for passengers.

The Williams review was prompted in part by the disruption to northern passengers caused by the botched introduction of a rail timetable last May

Northern leaders say a lack of accountability for decision-making has led to a culture of blame with nobody willing to take control when failures such as the timetable chaos occur. They have called for Transport for the North to take on a role as the "guiding mind" to coordinate services.

Mr Williams told the audience at the Northern Powerhouse Partnership event that "we need to look at how we bring in regional and local involvement into decision-making".

But he highlighted the difficulty of working out decision-making powers should be handed out due to the patchy way that devolution has been implemented in the North, Scotland and Wales.

Susan Hinchcliffe, the leader of Bradford council and chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, welcomed Mr Williams' comments and said what was important was "the right decision being made at the right level".

She added: "The timetable disaster of last year was awful but it has led to a real shift in making sure in future something comes out of this which makes sure the decisions are made closer to the people affected by these services. We do need the money to come with it, it no use getting the powers without the money."

Concluding his speech, Mr Williams said: "Listening has told us the Government, industry, the regions, passengers, politicians from across the spectrum and everyone else with a stake in the railway are united in a desire for root and branch change. So, the opportunity to deliver genuine, lasting reform here is huge.

"The industry is complex and getting to our final destination may take some time, but passengers must see and feel tangible changes quickly if we are to turn around declining satisfaction and trust.

"Change will need tough decisions to be taken and require collaboration and partnership working across the sector, but the prize will be big."

'Fat controller' for the railways

Mr Williams says oversight of Britain's railways should be in the hands of one individual or body which is independent of Government, arguing that the appointment of a "Fat Controller" type figure would be "key for regaining public trust".

He called for a new relationship between the public and private sectors that creates a more flexible system which lets train operators "get on with running services".

Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: "Keith Williams misses the point. Continuing with private train operators subject to performance-related payments means sticking with a failed, unaccountable and disjointed railway.

"Instead, we should bring the track and train together in a single company in public ownership but, critically, at arm's length from Government and removed from Government interference and micromanagement."