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Great British Railways to run infrastructure, set fares and timetables

Williams-Shapps review proposes rail national body to oversee track and trains, alongside plans for new service contracts and flexible fares

Mark Moran
20 May 2021
Grant Shapps and Keith Williams
Grant Shapps and Keith Williams

Control of rail infrastructure and train services will be brought under the control of a new centralised body, the UK government has revealed. Great British Railways (GBR) will integrate the railways, own the infrastructure, collect fare revenue, run and plan the network, and set most fares and timetables.

Network Rail, the current infrastructure owner, will be absorbed into the public body to bring about what the government hopes will be single and accountable leadership for the national network. This means GBR could provide a ‘guiding mind’ for the rail system, a unifying force that has been absent since the network was privatised 25 years ago.

Alongside managing infrastructure, GBR will also provide online tickets, information and compensation for passengers nationwide. It will be tasked with streamlining and simplifying fares, including extending contactless, phone and pay-as-you-go systems to more parts of the country. From 21 June, a new GBR website will sell tickets and offer a single compensation system for operators in England designed provide a simpler system for passengers to access information and apply for refunds.

GBR will operate in Scotland and Wales, but the Department for Transport said in Scotland and Wales will continue to exercise their current powers and be accountable for them, but the government will explore options to ensure all nations benefit from the reforms. GBR will continue to own the infrastructure in Scotland and Wales, other than some of the South Wales Valley Lines, as Network Rail does now. Rail in Northern Ireland is devolved and not linked to the UK network.

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail

The case for GBR is set out in a white paper produced by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and the businessman Keith Williams. In 2018 Williams, former chief executive of British Airways, was asked to review the structure of the railways after a chaotic timetable change, the failure of some franchises and what was seen as an absence of accountability.

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail comes eight months after the government scrapped rail franchising, which had been in force since privatisation, and brought in taxpayer support for train firms affected by a dramatic drop in passenger numbers during the pandemic as more people worked from home. Before the pandemic, commuters made up 47% of all rail passengers, a further 10% were travelling for business meetings and 5% were shopping. This means, around two-thirds of passengers were using the railways for purposes that now face potentially permanent change.

Grant Shapps said: “Our railways were born and built to serve this country, to forge stronger connections between our communities and provide people with an affordable, reliable and rapid service. Years of fragmentation, confusion and over-complication have seen that vision fade and passengers failed. That complicated and broken system ends today.

“The pandemic has seen the government take unprecedented steps to protect services and jobs. 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.”

Keith Williams said: “Our plan is built around the passenger, with new contracts which prioritise excellent performance and better services, better value fares and creating clear leadership and real accountability when things go wrong,” said Williams. “Our railway history – rich with Victorian pioneers and engineers, steam and coal, industry and ingenuity – demands a bright future. This plan is the path forward, reforming our railways to ensure they work for everyone in this country.”

An accountable railway

The Williams-Shapps Plan’s proposals fall short of renationalisation. Privately owned train operating companies will still run services, with franchises replaced by contracts that will incentivise the private firms on punctuality and efficiency rather than raising revenue. GBR will contract private partners to operate most trains to the timetables and fares it specifies, a model like that used by Transport for London in its Overground and Docklands Light Railway services.

The new Passenger Service Contracts will include incentives for operators to run high-quality services and increase passenger numbers. As demand recovers, operators on some routes, particularly long-distance, will have more commercial freedom. However, the department said affordable walk-on fares and season ticket prices will be protected.

The government says the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail sets out the path towards a passenger-focused railway, underpinned by new contracts that prioritise punctual and reliable services, the delivery of a ticketing revolution, flexible and convenient tickets and proposals to build a greener and accessible network

The government also argues the reforms will support delivery of a financially sustainable railway as country recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, with new contracts that make it easier and cheaper to plan maintenance, renewal and upgrades. It is anticipated that GBR will deliver significant efficiencies in the railways’ inflated costs, reducing complexity and duplication, increasing flexibility, changing working practices and making it easier and cheaper to invest.

The new Passenger Service Contracts could help to build a more financially stable industry by removing barriers to new market entrants, as tender competitions will no longer be based on revenue forecasts.

The government says GBR will design services with local leaders given greater control over local ticketing, timetables and stations. It also predicts new model will encourage innovative bidders, such as community rail partnerships who want to bid for the GBR contract to operate their local branch lines.

The new National Rail Contracts will be in operation for two years and act as a bridge to reform.

The government says that the short and medium term it will work with the sector on measures to encourage passengers back to rail. The new national flexi ticket is designed to reflect changes in the traditional commute and working life. Commuters travelling two or three days a week could potentially save of hundreds of pounds a year for 2 and 3 day-a-week commuters. Tickets will be on sale on 21 June, ready for use on 28 June.

10 outcomes laid out in the White Paper

  1. Modern passenger experience - Passengers must receive high-quality, consistent services. More accessible, reliable, well connected journeys and a new customer offers at stations and on trains. 
  2. Retail revolution - simpler, modern ways of paying for travel and straightforward compensation. Clear prices, digital ticketing and flexibility will underpin this transformation.
  3. New ways of working with the private sector - Passenger Service Contracts will replace franchising. New opportunities for innovators, suppliers (including small and local partners) and funders will be created through streamlined contracts and more contestability.
  4. Economic recovery and financially sustainable railways - The railways are a public service, paid for by taxpayers and passengers. Bringing together responsibility for cost and revenue in Great British Railways will ensure the railways become more financially sustainable.
  5. Greater control for local people and places - Railways will be more responsive to the needs of local communities. Empowered, locally-led teams will support improvements and be accountable to the people and places they serve.
  6. Cleaner, greener railways - Railways will spearhead the nation’s ambition to become a world leader in clean, green transport. Decarbonisation, greater biodiversity and improvements in air quality will ensure rail is a cleaner public transport network.
  7. New opportunities for freight - National co-ordination offering greater flexibility and responsiveness will create new opportunities for rail freight. Modern contracts will ensure the sector continues to keep goods moving and delivering vital economic and environmental benefits.
  8. Increased speed of delivery and efficient enhancements - Restoring lost rail links and accelerating the delivery of critical upgrades to the network will support new economic growth and connectivity across our nations and regions. 
  9. Skilled, innovative workforce - A culture of collaboration, strengthening leadership and enhancing the skills of people working across the sector are vital to delivering a better service for passengers. High-value and fulfilling opportunities for staff will ensure they can best serve the needs of customers.
  10. Simpler industry structure - A ‘guiding mind’ for the system delivered by ‘Great British Railways’, which will be organised around regional railways. People, culture and incentives will focus on serving all customers, with clear accountability, better decision-making and a single financial system. A 30-year strategy will enable the sector to transform and modernise efficiently.

Source: Department for Transport

Managing infrastructure

Under the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail Network Rail, the current infrastructure owner, will be absorbed into the new Great British Railways public body to bring about unified leadership for the national network.

Network Rail owns, operates and develops Britain’s railway infrastructure. It is responsible for 20,000 miles of track, 30,000 bridges, tunnels and viaducts and the thousands of signals, level crossings and stations. It also runs 20 of Britain’s largest stations while the others, over 2,500, are run by the train operating companies.

Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive, said: “Passengers deserve a reliable, affordable and sustainable railway, focussed on them. Today’s announcement will help us deliver that by simplifying the railway, paving the way to dismantle the legacy of complexity and fragmentation. Passengers and freight users will once more be put front and centre of a service designed and run for their needs.

“These changes will take time, but I am determined to get to work quickly with the industry and government. The pandemic has created significant challenges for the industry, and that means the changes we have to make are even more urgent. We must attract passengers back, deliver efficiencies and improve the service we provide. Today marks the start of an exciting new chapter for our railway, a chapter that puts the passenger first.”

The Office of Road and Rail (ORR), which is responsible for rail safety, was positive in its response. John Larkinson, chief executive of the ORR, said: “We welcome the publication of the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail and will continue to work closely with government and industry to facilitate reform and reshape rail for the future. Our independent oversight and assurance will be important in bringing transparency to decisions and will help ensure the new public body, Great British Railways, is held accountable for working in the best interests of all users, funders and passengers."

Operators welcome changes

The Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators, welcomed the proposals in the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail. Andy Bagnall, director general of the Rail Delivery Group, said: “Train companies have long called for many of the reforms in this white paper and these proposals can deliver the biggest changes in a generation. Getting the detail right will be crucial to ensuring that the white paper fulfils its potential to improve journeys, offer independent oversight and clear accountability, and create a new set of fares which are simpler and more value for money.

“Train operators called for a guiding mind and Great British Railways will help to bring the whole industry together. To deliver for passengers and freight customers, it must have the independence to hold the operators of both tracks and trains to account equally. Crucially, it needs to allow operators to put their customers at the absolute forefront of decision making.”

David Brown, managing director of Arriva UK Trains, said: “We are pleased that the private sector is recognised for the significant role we play and, in particular, the recognition of the London Overground concession model, which Arriva operates for Transport for London. It is right that new contracts will prioritise quality services, with a focus on punctuality and reliability.”

Philip Hoare, chair of the Rail Supply Group, welcomed what appears to be a long-term government commitment to prioritise the needs of passengers and freight under the new single body, Great British Railways. He said: “We particularly welcome the development of a 30-year vision for the sector that presents a once in a generation opportunity to transform all aspects of how we provide services. The rail supply chain is ready to rise to the challenge of improving efficiency, accelerating innovation, driving towards a net zero carbon future and investing in the new jobs and skills that will be necessary to turn this vision into reality.”

The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) welcomed what it sees as being more coherent structure for the rail industry, with a strong guiding mind. “The creation of a single accountable leadership is critical for improving the efficiency and cost of the railway, which the current industry structure has failed to do.”

Campaigners’ cautious approvals

Organisations campaigning for better passenger transport gave the Williams-Shapps plan a more guarded welcome. The Campaign for Better Transport wants to see more detail on fare changes. Paul Tuohy, the campaign’s chief executive, said: “We welcome this plan with its focus on the needs of passengers, simpler fares and contactless ticketing. But the devil will be in the detail.

“Will flexible season tickets - so sorely needed to encourage commuters back onto trains – offer a decent discount? Will there be single-leg pricing to make fares fair and transparent? Will the very welcome commitment to grow the rail network be backed by proper funding so that disconnected communities can access the opportunities that rail brings?

“It’s also vital that Network Rail can be held to account under these new arrangements. If we're to avoid a car-led recovery after Covid, with disastrous traffic jams, pollution and communities being left behind, it's more vital than ever that the rail network properly meets people's needs.”

Anthony Smith, chief executive of passenger watchdog Transport Focus, said passengers would welcome a move towards a more accountable and joined-up railway. He said: “Ultimately what they will care about is whether rail is the best option for them, if it is reliable, efficient and good value.”

TravelWatch NorthWest (TWNW), an independent community interest company representing public transport users, gave the plan a cautious welcome. It said: “TWNW responded to the Williams Rail Review (almost two years ago!) and many of the points we made then have been incorporated into the plan:

  • The rail industry will be restructured into a more co-ordinated entity, in particular bringing infrastructure control and operations much closer together, bringing better integration and passenger benefits.
  • Fares – simplification, pay-as-you-go, flexible season tickets and continuing regulation.
  • More local control and input from local stakeholders, including Community Rail Partnerships.
  • The commitment to strengthened passenger representation with an increased regional presence.

“There are some disappointments, one being the failure to subsume train fleet provision into Great British Railways, leaving this key role and its strategic implications in the hands of the private sector. However, all in all, this is a significant step forward which we will be monitoring closely, always with passengers interests foremost. One key factor will be ensuring key investment.”

The regions respond

Regional transport authorities largely welcomed the Williams-Shapps Rail Plan, but want assurances that promised investment will still be delivered.

Sir Peter Soulsby, chair of Transport for the East Midlands (TfEM) and City Mayor of Leicester, said: “The establishment of a new arms-length body ‘Great British Railways’ should ensure that the management of track and train is better co-ordinated and improve the running of the railway. But it will be important that these new arrangements are responsive to the needs of local communities and businesses in the East Midlands.”

Tim Wood, Transport for the North’s interim chief executive, said: “The fact that Great British Railways will bring track and train together as the guiding mind and put the needs of passengers first is a giant leap forward and something we’ve championed. This is a major national moment and a shift in how the railway is run. But this national approach must not be a missed opportunity for further devolution, giving the North’s leaders greater oversight of services and infrastructure investment to deliver more integrated regional networks that work for all.”

England’s Economic Heartland is the sub-national transport body for the region from Swindon across to Cambridgeshire, and Northamptonshire down to Hertfordshire. Mayor Dave Hodgson, chair of England’s Economic Heartland’s Strategic Transport Forum, said: “This is a watershed moment for our nation’s railways. We welcome government’s long-term commitment to rail through the creation of an integrated body. This provides the opportunity to ensure rail’s potential is maximised and allows us to work with our partners to align investment in local connectivity.”

Sceptical voices

Political opposition and trade unions were not convinced by the Williams-Shapps proposals. The Labour Party’s shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon said: “With fare hikes, £1bn cuts to Network Rail and broken promises to communities across the country, it’s yet another example of ministers talking a good game, with very little substance underneath.”

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT trade union, said: “This is a missed opportunity by the government to make a clean break from the failures of the past that have left Britain's railways in the slow lane. The government talk about ending a generation of fragmentation but then leave the same private companies in place under this arrangement to extract management fees that could be invested in to building a truly integrated national rail network. The taxpayer carries all the risk while the train companies carry out bags of cash.

“If the government were serious about recognising ‎the impact of failed rail policy down nearly three decades they would cut out the middleman, strip away the dead weight of the private companies and work with their staff on building a transport system fit for the future where investment in the workforce and infrastructure comes first.

“It’s important ministers and members of this new Great British Railways’ board‎ understand that you don’t build for a bright future by threatening staff with job cuts and attacks on pay and pensions. Our chief priority is to defend our members and, if the industry chooses the road to confrontation, they will meet the stiffest industrial resistance from this trade union.”

Manuel Cortes, general secretary of union the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association, also dismissed the plan. He said: “A concessions-based model will still see passengers' and taxpayer money leak out of our industry in the form of dividend payments for the greedy shareholders of the private operators who will hold them.”

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