Great British Railways – dead or alive?

There was a period soon after the arrival of Rishi Sunak in Number 10 when it seemed that Great British Railways was dead. Its very name betrayed the fact that it was very much a Boris Johnson idea, given its boosterist name and grandiose plans, and therefore the idea, which had been the centrepiece of the Williams Shapps report that arose out of the May 2018 timetable debacle,  did not find favour with Sunak’s new team.

For a couple of months, it appeared likely that the plan for an all-singing all-dancing organisation at the heart of Britain’s railways would be quietly dropped, despite the fact that tens of millions had been spent on developing the concept, mostly on employing the 235 people working for it. Yes you read that right, and pretty eye popping when one considers that most are seconded from major consultancy firms who typically require a daily rate of a couple of thousand quid or so. 

 When Mark Harper arrived as the third transport secretary in three months and cast his accountant’s eye over the idea, his instinct was to ditch the whole plan and create a rather more modest restructuring of the railway. GBR, was deemed to be too powerful and would, accordingly, stifle private sector initiative. Huw Merriman, Harper’s Rail Minister, was particularly sceptical of allowing Great British Railways to wield both control and power over the railways.

Instead, they wanted it to be just a ‘guiding mind’, making strategic decisions but allowing the private sector much greater free rein. Was it therefore necessary, , the senior transport ministers wondered, to create such a large organisation, which would encompass Network Rail and be the dominant force in the industry. There was much soul-searching and debate, with rumours abounding that Great British Railways would be stillborn. 

 However, with the George Bradshaw lecture in February, the first major outing by Harper,

It became clear that Great British Railways was still breathing, but would be rather weakened. The new emphasis, set out in the speech, was for a reinvigorated private sector to play a key role in the railways. Great British Railways would have around 200-300 staff in its Derby office but would only be involved in overall strategy rather than day to day management. 

 Among the many questions about how precisely this will work in practice, the overarching one is whether there will be legislation in the King’s Speech, expected in June. Without it, the contracting out process – franchising has been abolished – will remain under the control of the Department for Transport. That’s because the legislation, which effectively remains the Railways Act 1993 thought it was subsumed into the 2005 Act, determines that it is the Department for Transport that has the power to award contracts. According to rail industry insiders, the chances of getting legislation are rated at only around 25 per cent as there will be a lot of other, more electorally significant, acts that the government will want to see passed in its final session. There are numerous other questions which remain to be answered such as who will make decisions on rolling stock, fares, investment and so on. As for the greater emphasis on private sector involvement, it is difficult to see how this  can be delivered without a return to franchising and the passing of revenue risk to private firms. But there have been no answers on any of these major questions.

 The lack of legislation will mean that the industry remains in a state of limbo. This will be helpful to the Labour party if it wins the election as it will start without being encumbered by recently passed Conservative legislation but the uncertainty remains a major problem for railway managers already having to cope with poor performance, industrial disputes and the changing patterns resulting from the pandemic. Uncertainty is the last thing they need, but remains the dominant feature of the industry.

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