Keith Williams calls on government to seize the moment and implement fares reform

Keith Williams, Chair of the Williams Rail Review and former boss of British Airways, has warned that it’s now or never to radically overhaul and simplify Britain’s confusing and outdated rail fares system.

Speaking at an industry event (20 September) organised by respected thinktank the Institute for Government and co-hosted by the Rail Delivery Group, fares reform was one of the key issues discussed.

Fares reform
Williams stressed that progress on fares is crucial in demonstrating to passengers that the government is starting to make changes heralded in the plan for rail white paper, released in June.

Noting that revenue risk currently sits with the government, Williams highlighted the need to seize the opportunity because of the forthcoming spending review. In particular, he highlighted the need for urgent fares and retail reforms, which he described as “huge”, saying the railway has to demonstrate some changes in the next few years.

With over 55 million fares, the industry has long argued for an overhaul of the system to allow for tap-in, tap-out in cities across the country which would better fit an increasingly flexible workforce, and more flexible pricing on long distance services to make better use of capacity and help more people to get a seat. Updating regulations coupled with investment in ticketing technology will allow the industry to do away with the labyrinthine and confusing fares system which often bewilders passengers, and enable them to easily get the best fare for their journey, boosting confidence in train travel.

Speaking at the event, Andy Bagnall, Director General of the RDG which has led calls for fares reform, echoed Williams’ views and warned that while the rail white paper made some promising commitments to review the system, it was thin on the detail about how it would be enacted. He said:

“Now is the best opportunity in a generation to get fares reform right. In the white paper the aspirations are there, it wills the ends but not the means. Pay as you go, simplification of long-distance fares – are examples of what train operators have long been calling for. The Comprehensive Spending Review will be critically important to deliver this.”

Great British Railways (GBR) culture
With the white paper heralding the creation of a new ‘guiding mind’ for the industry in the form of GBR, other areas focussed on in the discussion included the need to get the culture of the new organisation right, while still drawing on the best of the private sector. Bagnall said enabling the railway to become “the backbone of national renewal and connectivity as we come out of the pandemic means a rebalancing of private and public sectors and changed roles for operators.”

Bagnall said that GBR needed “diversity of thought and to draw on the expertise of different professional disciplines … the rail industry is very good at providing a pathway for social mobility but we could do better to attract more women and people from minority ethnic backgrounds into key roles.”

Passenger service contracts
Bagnall commented that GBR needed to “look outwards, not inwards” and be a “guiding mind, not a controlling mind, and focussed on the passenger rather than the railway itself.”  Warning of a crunch point around the forthcoming content of new passenger contracts, he said:

“If we don’t harness the private sector in the right way, we will not fulfil its aspirations to deliver for customers. The key to getting the best out of the private sector is the new Passenger Service Contracts. Train operators are going to need to have more meaningful input and influence for things like timetables and fares. They know their markets but will need the right incentives and flexibilities to respond to customers and changing demand patterns.  Getting the contract details right is vital to achieve the right outcomes for customers.”

Photo credit: RDG

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