Paul Salveson on the danger of ending up with the worst of both worlds

Last year, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, announced his latest bright idea. The new body being created to bring a ‘single guiding mind’ to our railways, Great British Railways, would be located outside of London. Which is a good thing. But rather than looking at various locations objectively and deciding where to put it (Bolton, obviously), Shapps said that there would be an ‘open competition’ with towns and cities invited to bid, with a shortlist that would be the subject of a popular ballot. It seems a very odd way indeed to determine the location of the national headquarters of a public body.

The headquarters of GBR will provide strategic direction to rail in the UK, though Scotland has already said that it’s perfectly happy running its railway without GBR’s interference (which seems to have dropped the original logo complete with Union Jack). There will also be a network of regional ‘divisions’.

The Government’s criteria are, in summary:

  • alignment to levelling-up objectives;
  • connected and easy to get to;
  • opportunities for GBR;
  • railway heritage and links to the network;
  • value for money;
  • public support.

The shortlist will be subject to a ‘non-binding’ public ballot, which suggests that the town likely to win (or at least get most votes) will be the place that is most effective in mobilising local support in the ballot. The selection process is being run by the Great British Railways Transition Team on behalf of the Department for Transport (DfT).

Some of the messages that have been coming from Government spokespersons have been slightly misleading, with a heavy emphasis on ‘railway heritage’. What I suspect will influence the shortlist most strongly is more likely to be the availability of suitable accommodation, easy access to London and links to existing rail industry activity, be it in engineering or operations. Rail ‘heritage’ will be a nice added extra, I suspect.

Towns with very strong rail connections which broadly fit the criteria – Doncaster, Crewe, Derby and York – have put considerable energy into their bids. The full list of submissions stretches to 42 towns and cities, as well as a combined West of England bid from Bristol and Bath.

The shortlist will be announced on May 22nd, so I’d be surprised if the ‘big four’ of Doncaster, Crewe, Derby and York aren’t on it. The interesting thing will be to see who else gets through to the final stage. I’d also like to know how much total resource has gone into the bids, in terms of scarce officer time and consultants’ fees.

My home town, Bolton, is a bit of an outlier I have to admit, despite having once been home to a very substantial railway engineering works at Horwich just a couple of miles down the road. Its slim chances haven’t got in the way of a major bust-up over the council’s decision to opt for a location in central Bolton – not Horwich. This has led hyper-local party Horwich and Blackrod First, which is part of the uneasy Tory-led coalition that runs the borough, to threaten to publicly oppose Bolton’s bid, resulting in the defection of one of the hyper-local party’s senior members to the Tory ranks. Well, it all makes good copy for The Bolton News.

A decision on the winner will be made in the summer. I think it will begin with a ‘D’.

The bigger question about GBR is whether it will actually make any difference. The Government says that “Great British Railways… will own the infrastructure, receive the fare revenue, run and plan the network, and set most fares and timetables. Network Rail, the current infrastructure owner, will be absorbed into this new organisation, as will many people and functions from the Rail Delivery Group and the DfT. Great British Railways will own the railways across Great Britain and run them as an integrated system to achieve common outcomes in the public interest.”

Which sounds OK, but masks the fact that most train services will still be delivered by private companies, on contract to GBR. There’s a real risk that we end up with the worst of both worlds – a centralised GBR (even allowing for its ‘regional divisions’) which is slow to respond to passenger needs, with private sector providers who have little incentive to develop new services. It seems that train operators will still manage stations, perhaps with a facade suggesting ‘your station is run by GBR’.

Meanwhile, passenger numbers still languish at around 80% of pre-Covid figures, and there is considerable pressure on train companies to cut costs. With the rail unions striking over pay and redundancies, it could be an interesting summer.

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