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UK rail network faces post-Brexit shake up

The UK rail franchise model is to have an overhaul as radical as the change from steam to diesel traction. The news from the Palace of Westminster was a surprise, but only in the timing of its announcement. What was expected to be the prerogative of a dowdy business leader, Keith Williams, the man commissioned to review the network, in fact came from the lips of a much higher authority. As high as it gets in fact.

With all the pomp and circumstance that the British can muster, and that is something in which they still lead the world, the State Opening of Parliament is certainly the most formal day of any UK parliamentary session. Centrepiece of the day is the reading of the coming year’s business – the Queen’s Speech no less – delivered by the monarch from the throne.

Rail proposal

Drawn up by the Prime Minister and delivered as a command by the Queen, its contents are frequently well known or well guessed in advance. It is probably the most closely guarded secret that is not a secret by the time it is made public. Yet, in a parliamentary premiership that has been brief but not been short on surprises, Boris Johnson had switched the points on the UK rail industry by slipping in a little line for Her Majesty, which said: ”Proposals on railway reform will be brought forward.”

Pre-empting the Williams Review by some months, the Queen has ceremonially instructed her government to rip up the rule book and start again on the management of Britain’s railways. That will certainly send shock waves through the board rooms of the passenger train operators, the source of so much ire among UK rail users. Will it though mean as much for the freight industry, hitherto very much marginalised in the debate.

Response

Speaking exclusively to RailFreight.com, director general of industry representative Rail Freight Group Maggie Simpson, maintained an air of decorum as regal as anything seen in the House of Lords. “We are pleased to see that Government intends to take forward the outcome of the Williams Review in this parliamentary term”, she said. “Although the conclusions of the review have not yet been published, we have been encouraged by the narrative to date, which has been clear that any new structure must work for rail freight, as well as for passengers.”

The key change, hidden in the detail, is that the Williams Review will now be elevated to a government white paper, making it a proposal for legislation. That adds a new level of importance to its findings, and a new level of importance to the responses given, industry wide, earlier this year.

Stolen thunder

Given that Brexit is on course for the end of October, and that its implementation may well herald a general election in the UK, Her Majesty may be making a fresh speech in a matter of weeks. There is still plenty of opportunity for revision in the corridors of power. However Maggie Simpson is clear where the freight sector stands: “It is imperative that any new structure maintains the national network for freight, and that there is an appropriate governance framework for any new rail bodies which encourages more businesses to use and invest in rail freight.”

With the voice of the rail freight industry unequivocal, the Prime Minister making his intentions clear, and the Queen commanding her government to act, Mr Williams may feel his thunder has been somewhat stolen, by royal decree.

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Author: Simon Walton

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