Rail 1004: Rail reform bill stutters out

So after five years or the operation of around 36 million train services, the Government has managed to produce a Bill. Well, a draft bill that has as much chance of seeing the light of day as we have of seeing steam locomotives being revived as the main form of traction.

Indeed, there is something retro about the Bill in that it entrenches the power of a state run organisation, the Integrated Rail Body which may or may not be Great British Railways in disguise, over the industry. This ‘reform’ of the industry was prompted by the timetable chaos of May 2018 which revealed all too clearly that the different parts of the industry, notably the operation of services and the infrastructure, had a dysfunctional relationship which was inherent in the structure created at privatisation.

Those of us who have been covering the industry for a few years – or decades – understood this right from the beginning, given that the railways are essentially an integrated business since the trains cannot run without a track underneath them, and the rails are useless unless services run on them. That fundamental and artificial split between track and infrastructure has been at the heart of all the difficulties faced by the privatised structure and somehow the timetable fiasco persuaded politicians that this situation needed remedying.

In essence, this was a simple proposition. Bring the industry together and performance will improve and costs reduced. Yet, it has taken nearly five years for a bill to be produced and even that will remain as a ‘draft’ since no Parliamentary time has been accorded for its passage. The obvious question is why has it taken so long? Well, at root is the Conservative government elected in 2019 has been fundamentally dysfunctional. The reform process was initiated by the then Transport Secretary Chris Grayling who was then replaced by Grant Shapps, then briefly (I confess I had to look up her name) Anne-Marie Trevelyan and now Mark Harper. Initially the idea was to get an outsider, Keith Williams, a former British Airways boss to produce a report but Shapps, never a man to stay in the shadows, insisted on co-writing it – or at least putting his name on it – which delayed matters further. Covid did not help but the pandemic ended two years ago and yet progress has been slower than services on the mid-Wales line.

That recent delay has actually been caused by fundamental ideological differences over what the Bill should do. The version produced by Williams Shapps was very much a British Rail mark two, putting the key levers of power in the hands of an organisation given the Borisonian name of Great British Railways. It was, in fact the brainchild of Johnson’s long time transport adviser, Andrew Gilligan (who incidentally is back in Number 10 and was responsible for the rather muddled Network North report that replaced the scrapped part of HS2 between West Midlands and Crewe. Essentially that GBR would have been an all-powerful organisation holding a monopoly of ticket sales, determining the timetable, excluding any open access operators and setting all the key parameters for railway operations.

Enter Liz Truss who did not have time to kill off the idea but clearly wanted to, and then Rishi Sunak who clearly things railways are for hoi polloi as he prefers to go about in helicopters and Range Rovers. While showing no interest or knowledge of the industry, his ear was bent by various Tory MPs, particularly on the Right of the party (though since Johnson booted out the Remainers, that means pretty much all of them) who said these plans were stuff and nonsense, and much more attention had to be given to private sector involvement and competition. Harper admitted as I quoted in Rail 998 that  there will had been a debate about the extent to which Ministers would be accountable He went on: ‘There is clearly a balance to strike between bringing track and train together, making operational day-to-day decisions, and recognising that, certainly at the moment and probably for a number of years, there is still an important role for the taxpayer, given the 25per cent to 30 per cent revenue reduction in real terms that the industry has faced’. In other words, after all these years, ministers still had no clear idea of what structure they wanted for the railways.

While leading Tory MPs kept on putting pressure on Harper, the key intervention has come from Network Rail. In recent months, there has been much speculation about the precise nature and powers of Great British Railways (now seemingly called the Integrated Rail Body, though that is such a mouthful that GBR is likely to be the public facing name). There were concerns both inside and outside the industry that Network Rail, which is an engineering company, should not hold the reins. However, clearly, Network Rail’s lobbying behind the scenes has paid off and the Bill puts the organisation in charge. This has been met by incredulity in parts of the industry, notably some train operators. While reluctant to go public with their objections, they are deeply unhappy about the idea that Network Rail, essentially an engineering company, should be in charge of the whole railway. There is clearly a contradiction. Network Rail is a supplier to the train operating companies in providing access to the track, and yet it will also be in charge of allocating and specifying their contracts.

It’s not as if Network Rail and its leadership does not have enough on its plate already. The company has been under pressure recently over its performance. According to several industry sources, the percentage of delay minutes attributed to infrastructure problems has soared. One train operating director complained to me last week about an assortment of recent problems, from overhead line issues and broken rails to track counter failures and basic maintenance issues. If it is having trouble with the day job, the question is whether Network Rail can take on these extra responsibilitie

When I asked this question similar a few weeks ago, I was berated by Andrew Haines in the letters pages who said I was ‘plain wrong in his description of Great British Railways and the influence an infrastructure manager [i.e. Network Rail] would hold in the organisation’.

Haines, along with Lord Peter Hendy, its chairman, is adamant that this is the right solution. They point to the fact that neither of them are engineers and that they are well aware of the commercial needs of the railway. In response to the suggestion that Great British Railways should have been established as a new body overseeing the whole industry, both infrastructure and operations, they argue that it would have taken a long time to create and staff such an organisation, and that the skllls required are already found within Network Rail or would be brought in. As Hendy put it to me, ‘we recognise that Network Rail as presently constituted will not be the same as the one which will be responsible for the integrated organisation under the new structure. Some people will have the right skills, some may not. But we are the only organisation capable of taking on this task.’

That is ministers’ fault because so much time has been wasted in this process that ministers have now been forced into publishing a Bill that will never see the light of day out of embarrassment. I am told the Bill was ready to publish in December 2022 with only one subsequent addition, a requirement of greater consideration of the private sector. Had the Bill been published at the time, then there would have been plenty of time to determine what sort of organisation should lead the industry. In fact, the Bill and its explanatory notes does not address many of the key issues facing the industry such as regulation, governance and, indeed most importantly, safety

This process has been yet another indication of the failings of the present dying administration and has not addressed the key issue which is whether this new structure will deliver more bums on seats. Labour should base any of its counter suggestions on that crucial criterion. There is a need for a target on increasing passenger numbers and the industry should be geared and steered towards that aim. When Labour comes to putting forward its own proposals, it must consider whether Network Rail is the right organisation to become the heart of a railway which no longer faces the same issues as in May 2018. The imperative is for growth and how to deliver that most efficiently.




Names for the future


There has been much fuss from predictable sources about the new names for the London

Overground lines created by Transport for London. ‘Woke’ scream the right wing tabloids, a word that is merely a tired and meaningless cliché for things which they don’t like. And they rail at the £6m it cost to adopt the new names.

While I am not sure that they are all the best choice – I like Weaver, Mildmay and Windrush but Suffragette is a bit of a mouthful and a name based on an individual such as Pankhurst might have been better – this is a great idea. It has got people talking and it will help identify what is a very confusing set of services, all confusingly labelled Overground. The cost is trivial for a multi billion pound organisation and has produced a lot of free coverage for these services which, while mostly already successful, are not necessarily well known. So two and three quarter cheers for TfL.

Scroll to Top