MPs’ group backs plan for new rail ‘guiding mind’

THE All-Party Parliamentary Rail Group has supported suggestions that there should be a new ‘guiding mind’ for the operational railway, which would take over many of the functions currently carried out by the Department for Transport, such as awarding franchises and managing their performance. The idea has already been given a provisional green light by Keith Williams, who has been compiling the DfT’s rail review.

On 28 October, Mr Williams told the Commons Transport Committee: ‘Our lead option is to look for a national body, that will be in charge of rail. It is difficult to be accountable for something if you don’t have the responsibility. I think it is important to bring track and train into that body.’

In a new report, the All-Party Parliamentary Rail Group says: ‘There’s a logical rationale for a new national body to create a professional “controlling mind¨ to make key decisions, ensuring consistency of thinking and approach.’

However, it warns that although ‘it would appear viable to have a new centralised national “controlling mind” or to have decisions and related powers moved closer to local markets’, both forms of management do not seem possible side by side.

Faced with that choice, the Group has chosen de-centralisation rather than devolution, which it describes as the ‘logical path’. However, it also thinks that it would be possible to have a form of compromise ‘if all decisions and powers delegated to regions and cities relate to implementation’.

The Group also wants reforms to the ‘incentives’ which apply to Network Rail and the train operators, such as delay attribution liabilities.

The Group’s chair Martin Vickers said: ‘While some may say we’ve been here before, it is important that any structural change not only focuses on aligning sometimes competing priorities, but also maintains the industry’s primary role – serving its customers.

‘The Group supports better outcomes for passengers and freight. If the pitfalls we’ve identified are avoided, the case for a new arm’s length body is strong.’

The report is being commended to Keith Williams. Mr Vickers added that he was also ‘pleased to present our observations to the rail minister, Chris Heaton-Harris, ahead of the Government releasing its Rail White Paper’.

This White Paper is intended to present the conclusions of the Williams Review, although as a White Paper is a description of government policy, it is unclear what would happen if ministers disagreed with any of the points made by Keith Williams.

In any case, his Review is not now expected to be published until the next government has taken control, following the General Election on 12 December.