Great British Railways: New public body to take over all trains and track in biggest reforms since privatisation

Government promises to end ‘fragmentation’ of services

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Thursday 20 May 2021 13:04 BST
Trains and tracks will both be overseen by GBR
Trains and tracks will both be overseen by GBR

Control of mainland Britain's railways will be handed to a new public sector body under the most sweeping rail reforms since privatisation, it has been announced.

The government pledged to end the "fragmentation" of Britain's railways with trains and tracks both becoming the responsibility of the new body Great British Railways (GBR).

The new organisation will set fares and timetables, own and maintain infrastructure, and specify contracts for private companies to run services.

The changes will see vast swathes of powers moved from the Department for Transport and private train operating companies to the new railway planning body, which will resurrect the British Rail "double arrow" symbol and oversee ticket sales.

Some questions remain open, such as whether trains will be painted with a unified national GBR brand or whether the individual identities of different operators such as Avanti, South Western Railway, and GWR will be retained.

The Department for Transport told The Independent on Wednesday that specifics around the branding of services had not been finalised.

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But for the first time since transport secretary Alastair Darling abolished the Strategic Rail Authority in 2006 the railways will have a single public body overseeing their direction and development.

The government is keen to stress that the changes are not a return to public ownership – and says there could even be a bigger role for the private sector in some cases.

Under the system, private companies will be paid a flat management fee in a model similar to the "concession" system used on the London Overground. GBR would keep the fare revenue and also bear any risk.

Though the government has for years been looking at the future of the railways under its Williams Review, the necessity of the reforms became even clearer during the coronavirus pandemic, which effectively collapsed the franchising system.

With passengers staying at home during lockdown, private companies collected no fares – prompting the government first to step in with assistance and then to assume the revenue risk of fares.

Though the latest change has been characterised by some observers as a "renationalisation", the services are still operated by private companies – and will be under the planned future model.

But a publicly accountable body will have control over the specification of the railway and be able to plan how it develops at a national level, with private companies mostly relegated to the status of contractors.

The move also signals a break with EU rail rules, which mandates the separation of train and track management to foster competition.

“I am a great believer in rail, but for too long passengers have not had the level of service they deserve," Boris Johnson said.

“By creating Great British Railways, and investing in the future of the network, this government will deliver a rail system the country can be proud of”.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that "years of fragmentation, confusion and over-complication" had "failed" passengers.

“The pandemic has seen the Government take unprecedented steps to protect services and jobs," he said.

"It’s now time to kickstart reforms that give the railways solid and stable foundations for the future, unleashing the competitive, innovative and expert abilities of the private sector, and ensuring passengers come first.

“Great British Railways marks a new era in the history of our railways. It will become a single familiar brand with a bold new vision for passengers – of punctual services, simpler tickets and a modern and green railway that meets the needs of the nation.”

The announcement has been given a cautious welcome across the rail industry and by passenger groups.

Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), said it was "good to see the Williams Review published today, giving some certainty to the Government’s plans for the railways as we emerge from the Coronavirus pandemic".

He said that the industry thought it was important that the restructuring of UK rail should "not cause any hiatus in work being done to renew and enhance railway infrastructure or rolling stock, to ensure everyone in the industry can help rail to build back better as we emerge from the pandemic".

Maria Machancoses, chief executive of Midlands Connect, the midlands' sub-national transport body said: “This raft of changes is what the rail industry and its passengers have been waiting for, and if implemented correctly, could have huge benefits for travellers.

"By specifying timetables, service levels and operating standards, this concession model will reward operators for delivering what passengers want most – trains that run on time, friendly service and clean stations.”

But Johnbosco Nwogbo, campaigns officer at We Own It, which campaigns for public ownership, said the review promised "no meaningful change".

"The reality is that the government’s proposals are merely rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic - the changes are cosmetic and nothing more.

“After more than two decades of privatisation, it is abundantly clear the experiment has been a failure. Passengers have been whacked by sky-rocketing fares, endless cancellations and a shoddy service, all while private companies keep pocketing their juicy profits.

"The pandemic has only exposed this further - with the government having to step in to pay the private companies to keep doing what they were doing and protect their profit margins."

He called on the government "face reality" and "ditch their ideological obsession with privatisation and build a publicly owned, world class rail service fit for the 21st century".

Labour’s shadow transport secretary, Jim McMahon said the government's report "raises more questions than it answers" and was "another example of ministers talking a good game, with very little substance underneath".

“A lack of proper detail on flexible tickets and whether it will make travel cheaper for the average commuter renders it meaningless for millions and completely fails to meet the scale of challenge required to encourage people back onto the rail network post-pandemic," he said.

"When long term sustainable funding is promised, it must be delivered on. Labour has long argued that public ownership of the rail network will provide better value for the taxpayer and for passengers, who deserve more than rhetoric from this Government.”

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