New public body Great British Railways to take over train travel across the country

Control of trains and track will be brought under a new public sector body named Great British Railways (GBR) as part of sweeping reforms, the Department for Transport has announced.

Thursday, 20th May 2021, 7:30 am
Updated Thursday, 20th May 2021, 7:32 am

The organisation will own and manage rail infrastructure, issue contracts to private firms to run trains, set most fares and timetables, and sell tickets.

It will absorb Network Rail in a bid to end the current “blame-game system” between train and track operations when disruption occurs.

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail has been published as a white paper.

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Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps. Control of trains and track will be brought under a new public sector body named Great British Railways (GBR) as part of sweeping reforms, the Department for Transport has announced.

It is based on the recommendations of a review of the industry carried out by former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams following the chaotic introduction of new timetables in May 2018.

The plan was initially due to be published in autumn 2019 but was delayed by the general election and the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “I am a great believer in rail, but for too long passengers have not had the level of service they deserve.

“By creating Great British Railways, and investing in the future of the network, this Government will deliver a rail system the country can be proud of.”

GBR is not expected to be established until 2023.

Its logo will be an updated version of British Rail’s double arrow. It will be released at a later date.

Many reforms will be brought before the body is launched.

Flexible season tickets will be introduced, offering savings on certain routes for people who travel to work two or three times a week.

These will go on sale on June 21 for use seven days later.

There will also be a “significant roll out” of more pay as you go, contactless and digital ticketing on smartphones, the Department for Transport (DfT) said.

Rail franchises were effectively ended when the Government took over the financial liabilities of operators in March 2020 to keep services running amid the collapse in demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic, at a cost of £10 billion.

The emergency agreements will be replaced by passenger service contracts, with GBR contracting private firms to operate trains.

This concession model is similar to the one used for London Overground and Docklands Light Railway services by Transport for London.

The new body will specify most of the timetables and fares.

Operators will be incentivised to run high-quality services and increase passenger numbers.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said Britain’s railways were built to “forge stronger connections” and provide “an affordable, reliable and rapid service”, but passengers have been failed by “years of fragmentation, confusion and over-complication”.

He declared: “That complicated and broken system ends today.”

He added: “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.”

Mr Williams commented: “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.”

Anthony Smith, chief executive of passenger watchdog Transport Focus, said: “Passengers will welcome this move towards a more accountable and joined-up railway.

“Ultimately what they will care about is whether rail is the best option for them – if it is reliable, efficient and good value.”

Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA), dismissed the plan as “papering over the cracks”.

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.”

Unions criticise rail reform plans as ‘missed opportunity’

Rail union leaders and politicians have attacked plans to reform the railways, accusing the Government of merely “papering over the cracks”.

Labour said it raised more questions than answers while a campaign group accused ministers of “rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic”.

Manuel Cortes, leader of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, said: “The Conservatives have admitted that their Frankenstein privatisation experiment on our railways has failed and the franchising of train services has hit the buffers.

“Rather than take the bold action that our rail network desperately needs, this is an attempt merely to paper over the cracks.

“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.

“In some ways we are going back to the future with the creation of a strategic body for our railways. We used to have one called the Strategic Rail Authority and it was abolished because it failed to end fragmentation.”

Mick Whelan, leader of the train drivers’ union Aslef, said: “It is deeply disappointing that we have had to wait 18 months for the publication of a report which was finished in November 2019.

“We welcome the belated admission that the privatisation of our railways by John Major’s Tory government in 1994 has been an abject failure. Everyone is delighted to see the back of the franchise system.

“The big question is why are private operators still involved? Under these plans the private companies will still pocket a profit, but all the risk is being dumped back on the public purse. The Government is changing the model, but protecting the privateers, and privatising any profit.”

Mick Lynch, leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport 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 talks about ending a generation of fragmentation but then leaves 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.

“If the Government was serious about recognising ‎the impact of failed rail policy it 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 staff and infrastructure comes first.”

Robert Nisbet, director of nations and regions for industry body the Rail Delivery Group, also said the reforms did not go far enough.

He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “We would much rather see the bonnet opened and the whole system be tinkered with so it really does benefit the passengers.

“Because it’s not just the people on the trains, it’s about the economic recovery of Britain.

“That’s what really matters, and if you get the railways right, that should help Britain as it comes out of the pandemic.”

Jim McMahon, shadow transport secretary, said: “Nearly three years after it was commissioned, this report raises more questions than it answers.

“With fare hikes, £1 billion 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.

“A lack of proper detail on flexible tickets and whether it will make travel cheaper for the average commuter renders it meaningless for millions and completely fails to meet the scale of challenge required to encourage people back onto the rail network post-pandemic.”

Johnbosco Nwogbo, campaigns officer at campaign group We Own It, said: “The Government has somehow managed to run a three-year review into our railways – billed as the ‘biggest shake-up’ – and yet come out of it proposing no meaningful change.

“The reality is that the Government’s proposals are merely rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic – the changes are cosmetic.”