DfT lines up ‘competition’ to find HQ city for Great British Railways

Places with strong rail links urged to bid for chance to become home to new national operating body
Competition plan: transport secretary Grant Shapps Credit: PA

By Jim Dunton

05 Oct 2021

Transport secretary Grant Shapps has said a competition will be launched to find a home town or city in which to base proposed new national rail operator Great British Railways.

Creating Great British Railways is the centrepiece of May’s Shapps-Williams Plan for Rail, which aims to move forward from the existing franchise model for rail operators introduced in the 1990s that is increasingly seen as flawed. Only last week DfT announced it was taking back control of services under the Southeastern brand following what it described as a “breach of trust” involving £25m of public funding.

Great British Railways is due to go live in 2023 and will take on Network Rail’s remit, but Shapps insisted the operator would not become a “bigger version” of Network Rail. Network Rail’s current headquarters is a stone’s throw from Euston Station in London.

DfT said the competition to find a location for GBR’s new headquarters would be launched “soon” and that basing it outside of London would ensure that skilled jobs, investment and economic benefits were focused beyond the capital.

“The competition will recognise towns and cities with a rich railway history that are strongly linked to the network ensuring the first headquarters will take pride of place at the heart of a new era for Britain’s railways,” the department said.

Crewe, York, Doncaster, Darlington, Peterborough, Derby, Stafford, Swindon and Wolverhampton are likely to be among the railway towns and cities expressing a keen interest to bid – with so-called “red wall” constituencies particularly well-placed as the clock ticks towars the next general election.

DfT will be anxious not to repeat mistakes made when HS2 Ltd – its wholly-owned company overseeing the delivery of the High Speed 2 rail network – moved its headquarters from London to Birmingham in 2016.

It subsequently emerged that around £1.76m in unauthorised redundancy payments were made to staff who opted not to move to the West Midlands. The National Audit Office said the payments were essentially “unapproved enhancements” that directly contravened DfT instructions that redundancy payments should be based on statutory levels, rather than those set out in the Civil Service Compensation Scheme’s 2010 terms.

HS2 head of finance Steve Allen left his job at the company in the wake of the controversy. He said the unauthorised payments were the result of “both the HS2 executive and board being misinformed about the status of critical approvals for redundancies”.

Network Rail chief to lead GBR Transition Team

Shapps also announced that current Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines will lead the team tasked with driving forward the reforms set out in the Plan for Rail and creating what was described as the “guiding mind” of the railway.

DfT said the initial focus of the GBR Transition Team would be on driving a recovery in revenue for the industry following the massive hit delivered by the coronavirus pandemic in the months since March 2020. It said “growing the network and getting more people travelling” had been defined as a core goal.

Other areas of early focus are establishing a strategic freight unit for the nation’s railways and bringing what DfT described as a “whole industry approach” to tackling cost and promoting efficiency.

Network rail chief Haines is the second-highest paid civil servant in the country, according to the Cabinet Office’s most recently published transparency data on top earners.

His salary was banded at £585,000-£589,999 in the high-earners snapshot. Only High Speed 2 chief executive Mark Thurston was paid more, at £620,000-£624,999.

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