There’s a bit of magic about Great British Railways. First it appeared out of the hat as a typical bit of Borisonian boosterism as the answer to the problems on the railway network. Then, almost as suddenly, it disappeared. with Lord Peter Hendy talking about ‘reform’ but seemingly without the creation of a new organisation.
But then, hey presto, like magic, GBR was brought back to life after a period when it seemed that there was no sign of a hearbeat. This was all about politics. GBR was the love child of Boris Johnson, sired by Andrew Gilligan his highly influential transport adviser, with Grant Shapps, the former transport secretary, a somewhat reluctant midwife. When this trio was replaced by the arrival of Liz Truss in Number 10, followed with indecent haste by Rishi Sunak, the baby was in danger of being abandoned on the doorstep of Great Minster House.
Apparently, Mark Harper, the new transport secretary, did not like the idea of this all-powerful body taking over the railways. Its powers were too great, it risked stifling private sector innovation and would be unduly bureaucratic. Huw Merriman, the new rail minister, was particularly hostile to the idea was quite happy to kill the idea off.
However, the GBR Transition Team, headed by Anit Chandarana, had by then built up a considerable body of work, not least because it employed a remarkable 235 people (or full time equivalents) and had spent tens of millions trying to develop a new model for the railways. After much debate and an intervention from an influential group of backbenchers anxious about ceding too much power to GBR, the embryonic organisation was revived which was confirmed by Mark Harper in his keynote Bradshaw lecture in February.
The core idea remains the same, to bring coherence to the structure of the railways, particularly by integrating track and train which were separated without sufficient thought given to the implications at privatisation. However, the new emphasis, set out by Harper in the Bradshaw lecture, was to ensure there would be a central role for the private sector, something which did not appear in the Williams Shapps White Paper that presaged the creation of GBR.
The fact that the future of Great British Railways is, sort of, secure was demonstrated by the announcement that its headquarters will be in Derby, a good choice given the town’s history. I understand about 200-300 people will work in the headquarters there in offices that have yet to be found but despite this decision there is still no certainty that GBR will be enshrined in legislation before the general election.
Fierce discussions are taking place at this moment in government as the Tories seek to choose new laws in the final session before the election which they hope will be electorally popular. Stopping the boats full of immigrants from crossing the Channel, demonstrating that the economy is safe in their hands and bashing any ‘woke’ policies (whatever that means) are seen as the key to victory and the creation of GBR appears not to fit into any of that agenda. Therefore, the likelihood of getting the rail legislation passed is put at around 25 per cent according to my sources, which will rather leave GBR in limbo. What is particularly disappointing for GBR’s supporters is that the legislation is already written and is not very complicated, with a modest 20 clauses, many of them creating ‘enabling’ powers – in other words, leaving the detailed to be thrashed out later through Statutory Instruments.
The key aspect of the reform of the railways which cannot be delivered without legislation is the allocation of the new passenger service contracts which will be at the heart of the new structure. I understand that the idea is to ensure that all contracts will be put up for bidding by the private sector, even those such as LNER and Northern which are currently been run by the state owned ‘operator of last resort’.
However, without legislation, there is a major sticking point: under the current situation, only the Department for Transport has the power to let the contracts for running the railways which means that GBR will be constrained in what it can do. There is clearly frustration among the GBR staff that the changes on which they have been working for a long time and which they feel will revive the rail industry may not see the light of day because the government has other priorities.
More surprising, perhaps, is the lack of urgency about this issue in government circles. The terrible state of the rail network and the ongoing massive losses should be a spur for action and yet it is now five years since the timetable debacle that started this whole process and nothing, in reality, has changed. The GBR team is convinced that a lot could be done without legislation notably on fares which remain so complex that Barry Doe is possibly the only person in the country who totally understands them. Yet, apart from a launch of a slightly more flexible season ticket and the promise of more use of digital payments, nothing has changed. In an interview for my podcast, Calling All Stations (episode 16) Anit Chandarana, the lead director of the transition team, was adamant that there were two sides to sorting out the fares system: ‘It’s both about simplifying fares so that they are more understandable for customers, and they can trust that when they go onto a system to buy tickets, they are getting the right value for money fare for their journey and there is the fares ticketing reform programme for which money was set aside in the 2021 spending review such as extending pay as you go in Southern Region.’ These are interlinked because people will need to know the reasons for a particular fare which, as he said, was not the case at the moment. However, in order to bring about these changes without GBR, there has to be sign off from the Department for Transport, the Treasury, the train operators and even possibly the combined authorities in the regions. (see contrast with Germany in the adjoining item!).
The big question is what would a Labour government do with GBR – would it go ahead with plans to create one if legislation has not been passed or would it implement a different plan? At the moment, the party has no precise policy on this. Therefore, while GBR has magically reappeared, its future is still uncertain.
This is how to do it
On May 1, the German government introduced a remarkable new pricing system for public transport which enables people to buy a monthly pass covering local and regional bus, train and tram services across the country for just 49 Euros (£43). This has been widely presented as a remarkably clever plan by the German government to attract people out of their cars but as a fascinating article in Spiegel (https://www.spiegel.de/international/business/germany-s-flat-rate-train-ticket-a-08c11e93-2ee2-42f9-8975-056872b7aa3e
the German magazine (fortunately translated into English) reveals, the opposite is the case. The policy has been introduced as the result of a rather random and fortuitous process enabled by the fact that Geerman proportional representation system gives considerable power to relatively small parties like the Greens.
The precursor to the 49 Euro Deutschland ticket was the nine Euro monthly ticket developed during the pandemic. This arose out of negotiations between the various parties in the governing coalition when the Free Democrats, a small right of centre party, pushed for a subsidy on fuel. As a quid pro quo to get the plan through, they suggested a cheap public transport fares ticket and this was adopted.
It was immensely popular and attracted a wide range of new users to public transport. A staggering 52 million were sold and 98 per cent of Germans were aware of the product – 7 million of these users were new to public transport. The ticket was only available for a three month period and when it ran out, there was a sharp dip in public transport use.
Lengthy negotiations between the party have now resulted in the introduction of the new Deutschland ticket. This new scheme brings together a remarkable number of organisations. According to Spiegel, As far as local transport fares are concerned, Germany is fragmented into principalities on a scale not seen since the Thirty Year War. There is no transport association to dictate fares and subscription prices across the country as a whole. No body that could be responsible for enforcing uniform prices. Instead, there are 17 transport ministers at the state and federal level, around 60 regional transport associations and about 600 companies in the local public transport sector.’
Sounds familiar,doesn’t it. We have that range of organisations and it is often seen as a barrier to such initiatives as this. The long term and strategic objective – getting people to use public transport to reduce congestion and the impact of motor vehicles on the environment – has overridden short term considerations. That has taken leadership and courage.
Some local transport authorities are actually selling the ticket at less than 49 euros, subsidising the difference. As Spiegel put it ‘The whole thing is a bit like a flea market, and it still hasn’t been determined how proceeds will be distributed…. it is a “totally open question” how revenues from a ticket purchased in Munich by a woman from Mainz in order to use it to travel around Berlin will be calculated. Figuring that out, the association says, will be the headache for the next 12 to 18 months’. So this is a back to front project – introduce it, then work out how to do the sums. This from a country normally noted for its caution.
The key point is that while the price may go up and there are messy details to sort out, this is a revolution in public transport that would be unpopular to reverse. It will continue to attract people out of their cars and bring new passengers onto public transport. It is a game changer. If only we could do it over here….