The government’s consultation paper on the Williams Shapps report published on June 9 mistakenly put the year down as 2021 rather than 2022. The hasty correction only highlights the fact that it seems that the restructuring of the railways is going backwards rather than progressing. After all, the original report published in May last year was what is known as a White Paper. This is supposed to be a more developed expression of government policy than a Green Paper, which is for consultation and yet the latest offering asks for contributions from respondents on no fewer than 25 questions. Its purpose is according to the introduction ‘to gather views on our approach to meet the commitments that require legislation within the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail’. It seems like the Department is on a permanent roundabout which it cannot jump off.
Note that this whole Williams Shapps process was triggered by the timetable chaos of May 2018 which is rather a long time ago for so little to have actually been achieved. The intervening four years has frankly seen little progress apart from the White Paper. There has been a brief cheap ticketing offer, a promise to cut back on ‘unnecessary announcements’ and the launch of a competition to locate the headquarters of ‘Great British Railways’. The publication of this latest document came a mere two weeks after Grant Shapps was reported to have said: ‘We’ve had 50 different reports about the railways since privatisation, and they’ve all sat on the shelf and gathered. Rather than have another consultation, we’re going straight to legislation’. As this is the time of Wimbledon, this calls for the immortal words of the incomparable John McEnroe: ‘You cannot be serious’. Either Shapps was, euh, to put it mildly ‘fibbing’ or he has not been keeping up with what his civil servants or Parliamentary colleagues are doing since his colleague, Wendy Morton told a Parliamentary Committee in May that further consultation was going to take place.
The consultation is not scheduled to end until August which basically suggests Shapps’ commitment to pass legislation by next spring is highly optimistic. Indeed, as if to reinforce the idea that the old structure still has life in it, the Department announced on June 14 that it had granted First Group a further extension on the Great Western franchise which will now continue until 2025. This means that there has been no franchise competition on the line since…would you believe…2005! In the intervening period there have been two attempts to launch a competitive tendering exercise which both collapsed and instead First have been allowed to continue through a series of direct awards. Anyone would think they have good mates in the Department!
Therefore, while there has been an enormous amount of work into how the new Passenger Service Contracts should work, the old model used for franchises, a concept that no longer has any meaning, is still being used. It seems remarkable that contracts are still being let without the new system being, at least, field tested. We do, however, have a new name to replace Train Operating Companies which will now be called ‘Great British Railways Operator’ – deckchairs, Titanic anyone?
The ridiculously long period of gestation for the new structure can be set against the achievement of the John Major government in privatising the railways. A remarkably thin and vague White Papers was issued a couple of months after the 1992 election but this enabled the very complex and difficult Railways Act to be passed the following year. By the time of the general election in May 1997, the railways had been broken up and sold. While regular readers will know that I think this was a terrible mistake – and is now being partially undone – it was a fantastic admininistrative and bureaucratic achievement.
Instead, now it seems we just have a Transport Secretary interested in making videos and publishing wordy documents. The new document engagingly called ‘The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail: A Consultation on Legislation to Implement Rail Transformation’ was accompanied by another document issued simultaneously on the same Thursday afternoon – always a good time to release bad news. This was a further 90 pages on the results of a consultation on the 30 year industry plan originally published in May 2021 and this new document has the equally enticing name of ‘Whole Industry Strategic Plan Call for Evidence Response Report’.
So is there anything new in either of these documents that takes us further forward towards the promised land of a reformed railway? Well apart from revealing that decisions have not been made on a whole host of key questions, we now know that Great British Railways will not be mentioned in the new legislation. Those with long memories will recall that this was also the case with ‘Railtrack’ in the Railways Act 1993 and is a way of simplifying the process as otherwise it would be a ‘hybrid’ Bill that is much more complicated to get through Parliament.
The side effect of this is that it gives a lot of power to the Department for Transport to set the terms of the licence which will enable Great British Railways to run the railway. Whisper it, but this will mean an incoming Labour government will have the power to set different targets and parameters for Great British Railways, and offers a new administration the opportunity to start things afresh. It could, for example, change the licence to ensure that Great British Railways ran a railway much more aimed at particular markets such as commuters or focussed more on freight.
The very publication of these documents demonstrates how much work there is still to be done before the new structure can emerge. What’s more, the Bill currently being discussed will be a Transport Act incorporating changes for other parts of the industry and much detail will be lacking. Therefore there may well be the need for further detailed legislative changes to the railway aspects which will be brought in through Statutory Instruments.
The crucial part of the legislation, the integration of track and infrastructure with operations, which was highlighted as the key mistake of privatisation in the White Paper, will be addressed by giving the power to the UK government to amend the old European Union rules requiring the separation of the two. Yet, there is still some doubt about what precisely is being suggested. As the well-informed ‘legislator’ review issued by the consultancy Cogitamus put it, ‘perhaps surprisngly after all this time, the DfT is still not totally sure on what it needs to do and asks for views in this consultation’. Indeed, there are worries that this may contravene existing competition policy.
Frankly reading through these documents gives a sense of, quite literally, déjà vu. They repeat many of the statements from the original Williams Shapps White Paper and offer little insight into whether any genuine progress has been made. At the end of the day, all this consultation is flim flam. Those charged with running the railways ought to know how to run a good railway, what is the best structure and how to reduce costs without these lengthy and largely fruitless exercises. It seems that all their only purpose is to postpone the difficult day when DECISIONS HAVE TO BE MADE! However much ‘consultation’ is undergone, at the end of the day the contradictions of what the government is trying to do is all too apparent: it is trying to pretend that the railway is privatised when in reality it is the state pulling all the strings. It should recognise this, hand over responsibilities to a well-funded separate organisation and let the railway managers be put in charge (and for a start they should read my new book on British Rail which is featured in this issue on page xx).
There is no sign that the industrial action which is tearing apart the industry and undoing much of the progress since the Covid crisis is likely to end any time soon. Indeed, Tory politicians suggest reckon that this is the big one, a major confrontation that will only end with substantial reform to working practices in the industry.
If that is the case, then it is wholly dishonest for Grant Shapps and his fellow ministers to suggest that the dispute is nothing to do with them and is a matter for the rail companies and the unions to sort out. Yet, I have been told by numerous sources that the Department will not allow the companies to make any offers without its permission. As one put it, ‘you can’t sneeze [they actually mentioned another bodily function!] without asking them first’.
There is no doubt that many in government are eager for a big public fight with the unions as it takes the electorate’s minds off all its other failings. And on the other side, Mick Lynch, a moderate, has to contend with the hardliners on his executive whose intentions go way beyond trying to sort out their members terms and conditions. There is no doubt that with a will on both sides, this could be resolved. The unions would agree to a less than inflation rise, provided there were guarantees over other terms and conditions, and a good redundancy deal. The rail companies are eager to settle, too, but are prevented from entering meaningful discussions by ministers in the Department for Transport. Perhaps the latter should ask themselves how come they are acquiescing in the £100m per week being spent on HS2 when their actions are helping to wreck that very same industry. Unfortunately, however, logic is something in short supply these days.