Joanna Whittington, Chief Executive Officer, Office of Rail and Road at Transport Committee Monday 26 March 2018
Joanna Whittington is leaving to join the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ©

The chief executive of the Office for Road and Rail Regulation is leaving less than two weeks after the organisation published a report finding that “no one took charge” for the timetable chaos that crippled train services in the north and south-east of England earlier this year.

Joanna Whittington, who has been formally in the post for just over a year, is leaving the regulator on Friday next week to join the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The ORR said this was a “unique chance” for Ms Whittington. It is searching for a replacement, and an interim chief executive will be announced next week.

Ms Whittington’s exit comes less than a fortnight after the ORR concluded in a scathing report that Network Rail, Govia Thameslink Railway, Northern, the Department for Transport and the ORR itself all made mistakes when it came to the introduction of a new timetable in May. The report warned of a “lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities”.

Britain’s railways face multiple challenges. Punctuality is at a 12-year low; commuters face an increase of up to 3.2 per cent in the cost of season tickets from January; and there is scepticism over the franchising system following the failure of Virgin Trains East Coast.

Faced with opinion polls that appear to show support for the Labour party’s promise to renationalise the industry, the government has announced another review — there have been at least two in two years — into Britain’s unique system of rail privatisation, which split the network into three components of track, rolling stock, and train operators almost 25 years ago, and how it should be reorganised while avoiding full state ownership.

Almost a quarter of rail franchises are understood to be interested in renegotiating their franchises as a result of a 1.4 per cent fall in passenger journeys on the network in 2017-18, the largest decline in 25 years.

Labour has pledged to take the railway franchises into state ownership as they expire, with John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, telling the Labour conference this week that this could happen within five years.

Passenger revenues have grown from £3.63bn to £9.21bn since privatisation as a result of a surge in travellers, partly driven by congestion on the roads, higher employment and an increase in disposable income and gross domestic product.

Despite this, the government subsidy to the railways doubled at privatisation and has risen about 30 per cent since — from £2.75bn in 1996-97 at today’s prices to £3.59bn, according to Roger Ford, industry editor of Modern Railways.

Stephen Glaister, ORR chairman, who carried out the review into the timetable chaos, is also leaving. He will be replaced by Declan Collier, who recently stepped down from his post as chief executive of London City Airport.

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