Opinion: Getting Great British Railways on track

There remains a great deal to do to translate the government’s high-level vision into a concrete plan, says the Institute for Government's Matthew Gill
Transport secretary Grant Shapps boards a Northern Rail train. Photo: PA

By Matthew Gill

06 Jul 2021

Rail watchers have long awaited the outcome of the Williams Rail Review, a root and branch look at the structure of the rail industry and the delivery of passenger rail services, which began in 2018 but was interrupted by the pandemic. Its conclusions were finally published in May this year as the Plan for Rail, co-authored by Keith Williams and the transport secretary Grant Shapps.

The key announcement was formation of Great British Railways, which will run and plan Great Britain’s rail network (Northern Ireland Railways is not affected by the reforms), including receiving fare revenue and setting most fares and timetables. It will also maintain the network’s infrastructure, previously the role of Network Rail. In place of the current franchising system, GBR will contract with private firms to run trains to specified timetables and fares while incentivising them to meet other objectives including punctuality and demand.

The Plan for Rail acknowledged that there is much to do. The rail network is currently fragmented and complex. It suffers from a lack of strategic direction, inefficiencies associated with the array of bodies involved, and unnecessary confusion for customers. Both industry insiders and passengers agree reform is needed, and the announcement of GBR has generally been well received. But little detail has so far emerged on GBR’s remit, operational freedoms or governance. It is essential to get these right for the new body to deliver against the high expectations to which it will be held.

First of all, the government should set GBR clear objectives that enable it to trade off priorities such as reliability, capacity, cost, service quality and indeed climate change (which is identified as a priority in the Plan for Rail). GBR will need a leadership team that can understand the tensions between these priorities and reconcile them in the context of a clear overall strategy for the railways.

Ensuring the private companies that will still run passenger services under the new structure deliver on government’s objectives will be a further challenge. Their contracts will be tricky to write and enforce, and will need to avoid the current tendency towards what the Plan for Rail describes as “blame culture”. Transition to the new system will require an appropriately phased plan and careful leadership to ensure public confidence in GBR survives an inherently complex and messy period of change.

GBR is being established to create a clear common brand as well as a seamless operation, and with many rail lines crossing not just local authority borders but national ones, its success will require close collaboration with governments at the local and devolved level. For some, GBR’s branding will help to build British identity; for others, it will grate. The new body cannot be expected to manage these tensions itself and will need ongoing political support. Government will need to establish a robust decision-making process for selecting – and rejecting – major projects that engages local and devolved leaders such that they do not simply demand the earth and blame GBR when they do not get it. GBR will also need to build the skill and capacity to interact with local and devolved stakeholders and to partner effectively with them when they hold the salient knowledge and expertise.

Given these challenges, if GBR is to run the rail system more simply the Department for Transport must resist ongoing micro-management and must delegate operational independence to the new body. Among other things, this will entail clarifying how its 30-year planning horizon will align with its five-year funding settlements. In the aftermath of the pandemic and with travel patterns and transport technology changing rapidly, 30 years is a long time. Despite its resilience since the nineteenth century, Britain’s extensive rail network has an uncertain future and GBR will need to look ahead with clarity to ensure it meets the needs of the next generation.

Matthew Gill is a senior fellow at the Institute for Government. The paper on which this article is based is available here.

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