Williams Review: Transitioning to Great British Railways

The UK Government has published the Williams-Shapps plan for rail, detailing its approach to making railways the backbone of a more integrated, more environmentally friendly and modern national public transport system. As part of the plan, the newly formed public body, Great British Railways, will own the infrastructure, receive the fare revenue, run and plan the network and set most fares and timetables.

Rail passengers first

The Williams-Shapps plan represents a momentous opportunity for change for the UK rail sector. It will take some time before the market opportunities this centralised model presents are fully understood. Importantly for passengers though, there is real clarity on the intent of the newly formed GBR with a definitive and welcome recalibration to a railway system that firmly puts them first.

The plan recognises the starring role that infrastructure must play in the government’s levelling up agenda. It is also a clear recognition that railways need to be planned and considered as one coherent ecosystem if they are to tackle the big regional economic, environmental, and social challenges faced in the UK, while providing solutions at a local level. This includes achieving net zero by encouraging greater rail use, as well as taking steps to decarbonise the energy and materials used to construct, operate and maintain infrastructure and retrofit the network to reduce energy expenditure.

In addition to the formation of GBR, the plan sets out ten outcomes that it aims to deliver. To do so there are some key considerations to be made around setting up for success; investment in the transition; providing a long-term strategy and ensuring accountability.

GBR must understand how the customer is benefitting through every activity it undertakes.

Set-up and delivery of GBR

The creation of GBR will bring together the whole railway system, providing a clear line of sight between sponsors responsible for benefits realisation, outcomes delivered as part of capital asset delivery and maintenance and the procurement requirements placed on the private sector. This transformation of the operating model for UK rail will consolidate roles and responsibilities from organisations across the sector.

Performing a similar role to Transport for London (TfL), GBR will provide a united, recognisable brand and user experience that is consistent across the nation. It will bring together a complex group of stakeholders to drive collective innovation under a shared vision of success. It needs to resolve the lack of integration that has driven a focus on compliance and transactional short-term behaviours, rather than collective outcomes.

Rather than creating an additional layer of bureaucracy, GBR will be scrutinised independently by the Office of the Rail Regulator (ORR). This will enable the overall ability for capital investment programmes to be delivered more efficiently and adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Assurance provided by ORR should be risked based, collaborative and focus on the areas where it can have the most benefit.

GBR must understand its shared vision of success and be able to clearly articulate it to stakeholders and the supply chain.

Investing in the transition

Organisational change often present challenges – whether it is a corporate merger or in this case the bringing together of public bodies under one umbrella, setting off on the right foot is crucial. The purpose, vision and strategy need to be developed early on with a clear focus on the outcomes GBR wants to achieve. This should be worked through with the existing organisations upfront rather than waiting until 2024 when GBR officially comes into being. It must also be aligned with the supply chain and appropriately incentivised.

Any change has the potential to destabilise the supply chain especially given the complexity of the current infrastructure horizon as it recovers from COVID-19. This means working through the details of the setup sooner rather than later.

The organisational design and development will have to overcome the challenge of aligning the three cultures and functions at the Department for Transport (DfT), Network Rail and the Rail Delivery Group. We see this integration as critical for GBR, as conflicting voices will only create confusion when it goes to market for its Passenger Services Contracts. Talking openly about why conflicts would arise and investing in a behaviour change management programme is needed to dovetail with the functional setup of the target operating model.

The setup and the design of GBR’s governance structure will also need to be carefully thought through to accommodate complex groups of stakeholders and their needs, including:

  • Setting up new national and regional governance structures
  • Engaging and understanding stakeholder groups external to GBR
  • Establishing roles and responsibilities to provide clarity on needs, contributions and value add of all stakeholders
  • Structuring the integration so that functions can handshake between new and old
  • Understanding the role of rail and where individual organisations can have the greatest impact
  • Balancing standardisation with local technical requirements to ensure that innovation is still coming from the private sector
  • Designing, attracting, recruiting a diverse workforce and having a plan in place for retention – particularly important for delivery on decarbonisation and digitalisation.

Enabling and empowering regions to change and deliver the needs of local passengers and freight operators, bringing together different organisational cultures, is also going to be key to success. It will be unacceptable to rail customers if the setup of GBR results in any form of disruption to their daily lives.

The creation of GBR requires a considerable upfront investment to realise the benefits of a truly integrated business.

Long-term planning for GBR

A 30-year strategy will be led by the Secretary of State for Transport but produced by GBR. This will provide much needed visibility of the capital works pipeline enabling the supply chain and private sector to plan their investment in the railway, shifting mindsets from short term delivery to longer term planning. It will also give certainty as to how investment cycles will be replaced. This plan needs to:

  • Have buy-in from the organisations to be integrated by the senior stakeholders (government) and Tiers 2 and 3 from the supply chain.
  • Be long lasting and take account of economic, environmental, and social impacts of GBR and how it might be affected by external factors (e.g. climate change, legislation, mode switch incentivisation).
  • Safeguard GBR from the cyclical nature of government priorities to ensure that investment and decision-making are focused on the gaps that matter.

Stations will also be brought under the GBR banner enabling integration of operational and maintenance programmes. This will help deliver a longer-term asset management strategy, rather than investment decisions being based on the term of the franchise contract and unlock the social value that can be created for local communities and secure revenue income from local businesses.

The Williams-Shapps review now needs to be backed up by a clear strategy for creating GBR, provide the market certainty and clearly demonstrate the benefits of the investment to the customer once GBR is operational.

Ensuring accountability

GBR will be held to account by government and passengers for delivering an efficient, effective public service. Under the proposals it will create a ‘fit for purpose’ rail service that the country can be proud of, export best practice and delivers for passengers and freight. It will deliver up to £1.5bn in efficiencies (15 percent of pre-pandemic fare levels) and continue to invest in efficiency programmes including through the Project SPEED acceleration unit.

To deliver these benefits GBR will need to:

  • Understand what it means and invest in the development of collaborative procurement models to extract innovation from the private sector– incorporating the principles of the Construction Playbook and recognising lessons learned from around the world.
  • Invest in the workforce skills and diversity needed to deliver ambitious spending plans, providing role flexibility that creates well round future leaders who understand all aspects of the railway.
  • Decarbonise and enable new technologies from suppliers such as hydrogen, electrification and solar, as well as embracing the opportunity to retrofit its sizeable real estate property.
  • Examine processes and continue to invest in efficiency programmes such as PACE and SPEED. GBR needs to put in place systems and processes that enable them to deliver true efficiency at grass-roots level at scale – addressing the challenge of amalgamating the organisation’s ways of working.
  • Adopt systems thinking where the railway meets natural (wildlife), economic (other transport modes) and social (hospitals, schools) systems and effectively dovetail rather remain siloed.
  • Integrate with Network Rail’s current devolution journey to put the passengers first.
  • Enable the scale of change to be done at pace, while operating existing services, continuing its transformative journey and delivering on its existing capital delivery commitments in a constantly changing economic landscape.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the UK’s urgent need for a connected, multi-hub economy that can provide longer term resilience. Great British Railways certainly has the potential to galvanise the innovation hubs and skills bases we need across the country to make that a reality. The Williams-Shapps plan proposes to achieve this through a blended model where private investment and expertise can be bolted into a coordinated programme.

Getting this right won’t just put us on a path to a fairer and greener future, the new model for our railways could build capability for international export and further boost the competitiveness of UK infrastructure on a global scale.

For further information contact:

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Katie Hulland