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Great British Railways – Back to the Future?

Earlier this month, the Government announced the Williams-Shapps Plan for the UK’s railways which is the biggest reform to the railway since privatisation in the 1990’s. The main change will be the creation of a new public body, Great British Railways (GBR) to own the infrastructure, receive the fare revenue, run and plan the network and set the majority of fares and timetables.

Bringing the running of track and train back under one body could be seen as a return to the days before privatisation, but private operators will run most of the train services through ‘Passenger Service Contracts’ (PSCs) managed by GBR. The new body will be responsible to the Secretary of State for meeting the punctuality, quality, efficiency, safety and other goals set out in the White Paper and by Ministers.

GBR will be the national, customer-facing brand for the rail sector, rather than having different brands for local and regional services, and will focus on delivering an effective and efficient public service that puts passengers first.

This customer focus (which includes passengers, freight customers and taxpayers) is to be welcomed.  If delivery of improved customer experience is set as one of the key incentives for private operators, as regulators in the utilities sector have recently done, this should lead to industry wide improvements in timetables, ticketing, service delivery and customer experience.

There will also be significant efficiencies to be gained from simplifying the organisation and operation of the UK’s railways, with savings of £1.5 billion p.a. targeted within five years.

Encouragingly, GBR will be tasked with developing a 30-year strategy to provide ‘clear, long-term plans for transforming the railways to strengthen collaboration, unlock efficiencies and incentivise innovation’ which will be another welcome change from relatively short-term planning.

The first ‘Whole Industry Strategic Plan’ will be ready in 2022 and will guide long-term planning whilst GBR is established and by 2023 this will be translated into a plan for reform and investment in the railways over the 2024-2029 regulatory period.

GBR will operate on a regional basis, initially based on the current five Network Rail regions to ensure it is more responsive to local needs and new partnerships will be created to give towns, cities and regions greater control over local ticketing, services and stations. Existing Devolved Authorities in Scotland, Wales, London, Merseyside, and Tyne and Wear will continue to exercise their current powers and continue to award contracts and set fares on their services.

It is obviously still early days, but this plan has been years in the making and most people across the rail sector will be pleased that it has finally been published. The overall direction of travel is encouraging from a customer-driven perspective, but there are many details still to be ironed out and it will take several years to fully transition to the new model.

Our work with Northern Trains, which has included setting out a long-term, customer-driven vision for rail services in the North of England, leaves us well positioned to support Great British Railways as it forms and the private operators seeking to deliver local and regional rail services for it.