Monday 23 March 2020 5:18 pm

Coronavirus: Government decision to take over rail network raises questions over Williams review

The government’s decision to bring the UK’s rail network under the management of the Department for Transport for the duration of the coronavirus crisis has raised questions over the future of the rail franchising system.

Former chairman of British Airways Keith Williams is currently conducting a “root and branch” review of the current system ahead of long-expected overhaul.

Read more: Coronavirus: Government temporarily suspends rail franchise agreements

Last week, rail minister Chris Heaton-Harries confirmed that the review would be released before MPs go on their summer recess, but it is unclear whether that remains the case in light of the developing coronavirus situation.

However, industry sources said that today’s decision to have the government pay private firms a fee in exchange for running the services was in line with their expectations for the review’s findings.

Last August, when First Group and Trenitalia were awarded the joint contract to run the new Avanti West Coast line, a contract which will switch over to become a so-called management contract in 2026, Williams said:

“This West Coast Partnership delivers for passengers. It is a step forward that is firmly in line with the review, introducing benefits for passengers today and capable of incorporating the reforms needed for the future”.

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In a written statement to parliament, Shapps insisted that today’s decision was a “temporary solution” rather than a “new model” aimed at “ensuring current events have as little impact as possible on the railway in the longer term”.

A further indication of the government’s long term plans for the railways might be forthcoming when the fate of Go-Ahead’s Southeastern contract is decided.

In a statement this morning the operator said that it was expecting a decision by the end of the month.

Read more: Train operators running out of time to renew rail franchises

For some parties, this morning’s steps did not go far enough. Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said that the measures were a “time limited arrangement” rather than a “long-term solution”:

“Labour welcomes an honest debate on the future of our transport system post-crisis in order to address the fundamental issues with our current networks”, he added.

The Williams review is also expected to address issues such as fares reform and service disruption.

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