Rail 967: The slow death of Great British Railways

Great British Railways looks set to be stillborn. All the indications are that the legislation to create it promised by the now ex Transport Secretary Grant Shapps will not happen during this Parliamentary session which ends next summer, or quite possibly ever. There will still be ‘reforms’ but not under the control of a new body.

Once Shapps decided to add his name to the paper setting out the proposed changes , there was always a danger that the plan would disappear if he did. His departure, together with the arrival of a much more right wing Prime Minister, has led to fierce discussions in the Department for Transport about the reform of the rail industry set out in the Williams Shapps White Paper.

Much of what is in the Paper does not really fit with the new government’s agenda. For a start, there is a dislike of what are known as ‘arms length’ bodies – government funded agencies which are not directly controlled by ministers. For Great British Railways to succeed, it must be protected from the whims of ministers seeking short term political gains with announcements that are unrealistic or make no sense. The new body was to be given powers over such issues, with both a remit to run the railway today and to set out long term strategies and investment plans.

Except that ain’t going to happen. I’ve been told by various sources that the idea of a strong independent body to run the railways is too much like the re-creation of British Rail to find favour among the new more free market thinking ministers. Most important, the lack of a Transport Bill will prevent GBR being granted the full powers envisaged in the Williams Shapps paper.

So there is a need for a Plan B and that will involve working within the constraints of existing legislation. For the 200 or so people working for the GBR Transition Team, most of whom have been seconded from other parts of the industry, that is likely to be bad news. Frankly, though, it would save a lot of time, energy and money if the whole team were to be disbanded. This process of reform, remember, was stimulated by the timetable chaos of May 2018 – yes, you read that right, 2018 – and has stumbled along through three Prime Ministers, three Transport Secretaries, a pandemic and the collapse of the franchising system.

That last point means that doing nothing is not an option. There is no chance that the franchising system, with the transfer of revenue risk – in other words, private companies collecting and keeping the fares – at its heart can be revived. The uncertainties over the future of the railways in the new post-Covid world together with the departure of key players such as Stagecoach and Abellio mean that a new system has to be emerge from the ashes of the old one.

In fact, the inability to get any new legislation may prove a blessing in disguise for the new transport secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan (who is already known as AMT). Much of the agenda for GBR could be delivered without the need for additional legislation or, indeed, the creation of a new body. The fundamental reason for setting up GBR was the need for a ‘guiding mind’ so that the chaos of May 2018 when a timetable agreed under franchise deals proved to be unworkable because of infrastructure constraints. The solution, all too obvious for people like me who see the railways as an integrated business, was to bring together the two key components of running a railway, the operations and the infrastructure.

But do we need a whole new organisation to ensure this takes place? At the moment, the franchises (or the contracts that are replacing them) are specified by the Department for Transport whereas the investment decisions are the responsibility of Network Rail. At the moment, these two bodies work apart but, hey, why not bring the required sections of these organisation together under one roof to coordinate their work – as incidentally, happened with British Rail.

Ah, the supporters of Williams-Shapps will say, we need a change in culture. That’s why a new organisation is needed. Really? Well, GBR would be dominated by Network Rail in any case, and if a change of culture is required, then surely it is NR that needs to be addressed, rather than trying to create a whole new organisation. In any case, Shapps seemed to realise this by asking the well-regarded Network Rail boss Andrew Haines to oversee the creation of Great British Railways which was always going to have a Network Rail + type of structure.

In terms of other potential functions for GBR, the most high profile would have been setting fares. Would it, in truth, ever have been allowed to reform the whole structure, which everyone in the industry agrees is needed, without Department for Transport, and, inevitably, the Treasury. In an ideal world, of course, an independent GBR would have been given the freedom to determine fares policy and to work on a simplified structure. But in truth this was unlikely to happen. Treasury rules OK! So again, it is up to the various stakeholders in the railways to devise a new fares structure. Yes, it is complicated, but as I have argued before with my idea for a basic fare, it is not impossible to do something quickly.

Then there is the task of franchising. That has been made simpler by the change to management contracts. Again, do we need GBR to undertake this? Surely, the Network Rail and Department teams working together, in the same building, could sort that out? The maddest part of the whole GBR concept is the insistence that delivery has to be by the private sector when, in fact, currently the best performing train operators are those like East Coast and SouthEastern which are under state control

Then there are the forward looking strategies. The Department has been good at commissioning these and promptly ignoring them. Again, they can be happily done without GBR. Network Rail, for example, published an excellent report on Decarbonisation. Unfortunately its simple core message that there was a need for a rolling electrification programme was not in tune with the thinking of ministers who are obsessed with hydrogen, bimode and bionic duckweed (prop Roger Ford) rather than the simple job of putting up wires and buying shiny new electric trains. In fact, one could argue there are too many strategie. As I wrote over a year ago (Rail 929 , does the industry really need the WISP, a ‘whole industry strategic plan’, a 30 year look ahead in a world where pandemics, exponential fuel prices, collapses of major companies and wars are all unpredictable events which have happened over the last two.

So, sack the GBR Transition Team, bang the heads of people in the Department for Transport and Network Rail together, integrate operations and infrastructure and move away from the obsession that everything has to be delivered by the private sector. There you go, AMT, your starting agenda.


 Avanti still going backward


If GBR is for the chop, then surely Avanti must go with it. The extraordinary story of the meltdown of rail services on Britain’s premier main line (sorry East Coast, but it is) would be front page news if it hadn’t been for a few other events intervening in our media outlets. I write this two days before I am due to head for Liverpool for the Labour conference but checking National Rail Enquiries, I am told that it is impossible to say which of the normal services will be operating on the day I am due to travel. No advance bookings are available, which will fool many people into thinking there are no seats on the train or worse, that they will not be able to get on.


Passenger Focus which as an official watchdog sometimes appears to be constrained in its criticism, has produced a damning indictment on the company. It cites the unfortunate experience of passengers it surveyed and it makes depressing reading. The list is too long to publish here but includes lack of information, double booking of reserved seats,  reservation system on trains not activating, many short-notice cancellations occurring  and erratic provision of catering.

This is putting people off using the railways with many respondents to the Passenger Focus survey reporting they had cancelled their rail journeys. While some of that is clearly down to the drivers’ reluctance to sign on for rest day working, much of it is just down to poor management. An Avanti driver wrote to me privately to say how relations between staff and managers had broken down with rosters being imposed from above without consultation, and routine meetings between the two sides no longer take place. Passenger Focus says it wants to see immediate improvements to this poor situation.

I understand that ministers are considering taking away the contract from Avanti and indeed a decision may have been made by the time this column is published. There is, of course, embarrassment in Conservative circles that this would leave both main lines between London and Scotland in public hands, an indictment of the system which ministers are committed to change but, as my main piece cites, is stuck in the quagmire of government.

Scroll to Top