Background to the report

In May 2018, there was significant disruption to passengers across the rail network following the failed introduction of a new timetable. In response the Department for Transport (DfT) set up the Williams Rail Review to examine the structure of the rail industry and how passenger services are delivered. The review was largely completed when the COVID-19 pandemic started, changing the way people use the railway.

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DfT extended the review to consider the impact of the pandemic. The Williams review called for fundamental change. DfT published its white paper on rail reform in May 2021, setting out how the government intended to transform the way the rail system works.

DfT has overall responsibility for the railways, but the way the rail system works in practice is complex and has led to competing priorities between the public and private bodies involved. The white paper proposed the government set up a new organisation, Great British Railways, to act as the ‘guiding mind’ for the railways and with responsibility for the whole rail system. It also set out a wide range of changes intended to get the basics right – running trains on time and making travel straightforward and welcoming to customers.

By October 2021, DfT had set up its rail transformation programme (the Programme) to deliver the reforms. The Programme focused on four key areas: changing the rail system; replacing the existing passenger service contracts; improving passenger experiences; and reforming the rail workforce. DfT also set up a Great British Railways Transition Team (GBRTT) to prepare for the establishment of Great British Railways in October 2021.

In autumn 2023, the government pushed back the timetable for rail reform. Following the Queen’s Speech in May 2022, DfT had planned for the government to proceed with legislation that would enable the establishment of Great British Railways by 2024. In autumn 2022, the Secretary of State for Transport stated that the government no longer considered legislation for rail reform a priority in that Parliamentary session and asked DfT to continue with reforms that did not need legislation.

Later in 2022, a new Secretary of State for Transport decided to go ahead with changes to legislation, with the reform placing a greater emphasis on the role of the private sector. However, the King’s Speech in November 2023 did not include rail reform as legislation to be introduced in the next Parliamentary session. Instead, the government set out that there would be pre-legislative scrutiny on the draft rail reform bill as preparation for when legislation could be taken forward.

Scope of the report

It has been three years since DfT’s white paper on rail reform and DfT had planned to implement key parts of its reform by early 2024. We intended to examine whether DfT had set up its Programme to deliver value for money and the progress it had made to date. As our fieldwork progressed, the government confirmed delays to the legislation supporting reform and DfT revised its approach. We amended our scope to include these developments. Our report therefore examines:

  • whether DfT has a clear rationale for the reform of the rail sector
  • DfT’s approach to the delivery of rail reform, what DfT has achieved and the impact of the delays to reform
  • whether DfT’s interim arrangements will support its full reset of rail reform after 2024

The report examines DfT’s work on rail reform as a whole. We have not undertaken a detailed examination of individual projects as part of our work.


The rail sector’s performance for passengers and the taxpayer is not good enough and has not been for some time. DfT has identified key problems that need to be addressed but has not been able to translate this into a programme it could implement. The government’s legislative priorities have changed and this has impacted DfT’s work. However, the speed at which DfT intended to move on a vast and complex set of reforms gave it too little time to plan, build agreement and deliver, with no contingencies if events did not go as hoped.

With key parts of reform now paused until the next parliament, long-standing issues on the railway remain, such as its financial stability and affordability, culture, and the service provided for passengers. DfT is not yet set up to secure value for money from its work to reform rail.

DfT is now focused on what it can do to improve the rail system ahead of legislation. This will require closer working and changes in the culture of organisations across the rail sector, ahead of any structural changes that would support this. It is important that DfT can both make progress with incremental improvements alongside planning to address underlying problems in the future. Successfully doing so will require a clear understanding of what it needs to deliver, supported by realistic delivery plans.


Publication details

Press release

View press release (8 Mar 2024)

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