Great British Railways?

The now defunct Virgin Trains West Coast service (photo: Takashi Hososhima)

Government plan for rail is neither fish nor fowl, says Paul Salveson

The Department for Transport published its long-awaited ‘plan for rail’ in early June. It was co-authored by former British Airways boss Keith Williams and transport secretary Grant Shapps, though the hand of Johnson’s transport advisor, Andrew Gilligan, is all over it.

After such a long time in gestation the Williams-Shapps report is sadly disappointing. There is no analysis of the deep-rooted problems in the industry which led to the report’s commissioning two years ago, following the May 2018 timetable meltdown. Nor is there much reference, let alone analysis, of the other key issues that need to be addressed, such as decarbonisation (electrification) and infrastructure development (e.g. Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine) or of why Great Western electrification costs rose so dramatically out of control.

The demise of the franchise system is overstated in the document. The proposed new ‘National Rail Contracts’ are merely franchises with the revenue risk, to operators, stripped out. The same issues as currently exist, including ‘delay attribution’ which is detailed as an example of how contractual (and costly) the railways have become, will continue across the wheel/rail divide (viz. the separation of infrastructure management from train operations), which has been perpetuated for no obvious reason and with no justification.

The rebranding to ‘Great British Railways’ (GBR), covering both the English passenger railway and the Great Britain-wide network, will add complexity and confusion and reduce accountability for the railways run by devolved administrations (particularly Scotland and Wales, but also Merseyside and London), each of which has their own strong identity. It seems to be a political ploy to support the Government’s ‘defend the union’ agenda.

The claims to reform fares and ticketing are also overstated. Some of the suggestions for fares reform have already been available with some operators – there are no new major proposals.

It would be silly to say it’s all bad. The support for community-rail partnerships is welcome, but the Government should put its money where its mouth is and give them further funding to develop their work. However, expecting them to bid on their own for ‘micro-franchises’ could be over-optimistic unless resources are made available to assist them.

Railway people have proved adept at making the best out of a bad job, and one cause for hope in the Government’s plan is the likelihood that Network Rail leaders Peter Hendy and Andrew Haines will run the new GBR. Both are highly respected and committed transport professionals, but they will have their work cut out in making the new body a success. I hope they will be brave and sensible enough to give real power to the proposed regional divisions and encourage them to work with regional partners such as the combined authorities.

There are fears among many rail professionals, such as the Rail Reform Group, that the new GBR “could be a return to the old days of London-based centralisation with little understanding of regional, let alone local, markets… Centralised control of timetables and fares lacks any link to local markets which are key to growing rail business, yet whilst reference is made to the five current regions (one of which is Scotland and run quite differently) there is no indication that the regions will be the key specifiers and drivers”.

It appears that the ‘single guiding mind’ translates into a highly centralised operation, much like the railway of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Anyone who thinks that this represents a change back to a publicly-owned and accountable railway is deluding themselves. In many ways it is the worst of all worlds, with the likelihood that the private operators who will operate the ‘national passenger contacts’ having little incentive to develop new products and services, and will look at ways to cut costs wherever they can. The response from some will be that the contracts won’t allow them to do that, but you end up with a railway that is specified down to the tiniest detail, making any change, for good or bad, incredibly difficult to do.

There is an alternative. In previous Chartist articles I’ve argued for mutually-owned and vertically-integrated regional companies to run the railways that Government and the public can trust – creating a railway for the common good, that is there for the long term, not just a few years. The ‘plan’ is a wasted opportunity, but Labour doesn’t seem to be offering much of an alternative, other than a return to a different model of highly-centralised bureaucracy.

Running a national railway network well involves a delicate balance with some degree of national co-ordination, other issues such as fares, core timetables and passenger standards, with regional and even local initiative. If you think that’s pie-in-the-sky, have a look at the railways of Switzerland.

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