The man put in charge of sorting out the shambolic state of UK railways has today made it clear that he thinks “the government should not manage railways”.
Keith Williams promised a root and branch review of the rail industry. He promised no options would be off the table. Yet today’s admission has done just that.
Taking public ownership off the table is a missed opportunity for much needed change.
Williams’ inability or refusal to consider alternatives to private ownership means he won’t be able to offer the truly radical solutions that our railways so desperately need.
It’s not all bad news.
Williams acknowledged how vital staff engagement is, because rail workers know more than any politician about our railways and how to improve them.
That’s why we’ve always said that the workforce are essential partners in any future improvements to the network.
It’s also good that Williams recognised the need for a single guiding mind to oversee the industry.
Yet it’s hard to see how this can work in our fragmented, privatised system without the profit motive getting in the way.
Instead of papering over the cracks of a system at breaking point, what we really need is radical change.
Timetable chaos, poor performance and rising fares prove that privatisation is not delivering. Delays are now the worst they have been for 12 years – and the taxpayer often has to carry the can when franchises don’t make enough money to satisfy fat cat shareholders.
In one case, taxpayers were left £38m out of pocket when ticket sales fell. But the contract meant the Train Operating Company (TOC) got paid all the same.
The best way to oversee the whole industry is to put it into public ownership, with democratically accountable oversight.
A publicly owned railway under a single guiding mind could ensure that upgrades and timetable changes are aligned to cause minimum disruption.
It could ensure workers across the industry are listened to, so their knowledge and expertise helps make the service better and safer.
And it would ensure that passengers were truly put at the heart of the service.
That means losing the conflicts of interest and negative incentives that embed complex, expensive ticketing systems and bare-minimum staffing levels relied upon by the TOCs seeking to make a profit.
It would mean a better service for passengers and a fairer deal for staff.
Williams is right, the railways do need a root and branch reform. It will just be a shame if he wastes this opportunity to do it.
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