Train bosses hope to know where rail is going by the end of this year
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
Rail companies around the country are waiting to get the first clear indication of the future shape of their industry which could emerge towards the end of the year with the publication of a major review of the way it operates.
The Williams Review into the industry, and the future of rail franchises, had been due to be published earlier this year but was shunted into the sidings by the Covid pandemic – and then the collapse in rail passengers and the introduction of Emergency Measure Agreements of government payments to keep services running for key workers forced a rethink of the plans.
Passenger numbers are still only a fraction of what they were before the pandemic, although the number of passengers on some services is starting to rise. Commuter numbers remain very low.
Train companies are trying to emphasise that rail is one of the safest ways of travelling – especially because most trains are still relatively empty. Figures from the government’s RSSB (formally the Rail Safety and Standards Board) show that with passengers wearing masks the chances of catching Covid on a train is less than one in 20,000 during a one-hour journey.
It says the chances of death or ending up in hospital after taking a train journey remain less than using any road transport when all safety factors are taken into account alongside the Covid risk from public transport.
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But last week the government signalled the end of the franchise system and it is expected that the Williams Review – written by former BA chief executive Keith Williams – will recommend a new commissioning structure for the rail industry with service levels set by the government.
Rail chiefs do not expect this to result in major changes to services immediately, saying it could take several years before they are all implemented – by which time it should be clear how many commuters and other passengers have returned to the railways.
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And they say fears that modern trains could be moved from areas like East Anglia are likely to be unfounded. One rail boss said: “There are new trains that have just entered service or are on order and due to enter service soon all over the network – the idea that there’s a shortage and we could lose those in East Anglia seems unlikely.”