Great British Railways plan ‘delayed’ as Liz Truss pulls transport bill

New body was set to run Britain’s railways from early 2024 but no legislation now due this session

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Wednesday 19 October 2022 19:14 BST
There is ‘deal to be done’ on train strikes, transport secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan says

The government’s plan to create a new body to run Britain’s railways has been delayed, the transport secretary has announced.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan said a planned transport bill that would legislate to set up Great British Railways (GBR) would not go ahead in this parliamentary session.

The creation of GBR, announced by Ms Trevelyan's predecessor Grant Shapps in May last year, had been due to go ahead in early 2024.

The state-owned body would control the contracting of passenger services and take over the management of infrastructure from Network Rail – putting it in control of setting fares and timetables, with a single national brand.

But appearing at the commons transport select committee on Wednesday morning, the cabinet minister said the legislation required would not get parliamentary time in this session.

Asked whether this meant the plan would not be implemented by early 2024 as planned, Ms Trevelyan said this was “a fair call, realistically”.

Bernadette Kelly, the top civil servant at the Department for Transport, also told the committee: “I think in the absence of legislation to the timetable that we have been planning, then it is very difficult for us to implement all of the changes necessary which require legislation to establish GBR.”

The transport bill had been included in the Queen’s Speech to go ahead this session, and also included measures in response to the P&O ferry dispute, around the next phase of HS2 from Crewe to Manchester, and on new technologies like E-Scooters and self-driving vehicles.

Some of these aspects would go ahead in a narrower “future of transport bill” in this parliamentary session, she confirmed later in the session.

Referring to the legislation around GBR, Ms Trevelyan told MPs: “We will have it fully legislated in the way that we need to in the next session. So effectively being asked to shunt ourselves six months backwards.”

A new parliamentary session is due to begin in May 2023, the earlier date the legislation could be brought forward again – though there was no commitment to a specific date. It was due to be brought forward this autumn.

Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, who sits on the committee, said scrapping the bill suggested that “the whole of government is falling apart”.

GBR held a competition over the summer to choose a location for its new headquarters, with the transport secretary due to make a decision on the winning town or city by the end of the year.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, the government has moved away from the longstanding rail franchising system and said it is not working for passengers.

Many franchises are now operating to specifications decided by the Department for Transport, with the government taking on revenue risk and keeping the money from ticket sales.

In those cases, private companies effectively act as a contractor – when previously they had more control over services, and took the revenue risk. This system is planned to be transitional however, as the government will hand responsibility from the DfT to GBR when the body is fully established.

Following the news, Andy Bagnall, chief executive of Rail Partners, the industry body which represents private train operators, said the delay was “disappointing”, adding:

“It is critical there is not a long hiatus and there are immediate steps that can be taken now, such as switching on revenue incentives in National Rail Contracts and feeding back to the market on passenger service contracts development, which can accelerate growth and underpin a reinvigorated public-private partnership.”

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