The writer is a former board member of the Office of Rail and Road and is president of the Infrastructure Forum
Britain’s railways have bigger problems even than the industrial action that has beset them for weeks. They stand in desperate need of a structure under which they can function. They require a “guiding mind” with expertise to fill the present gap between fragmented, and largely underperforming, train companies and the Department for Transport which has ended up determining their fate, financing and operations.
In May 2021 the government produced Great British Railways: the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, which identified both the post-privatisation fragmentation and a way forward.
Privatisation in rail was, it is now clear, overambitious. Looking back, the earlier privatisations in the 1980s, in which the nationalised entity was privatised as a whole and then gradually made subject to competition, appear to have worn better than those, like rail, in which complex competitive structures were set up at the outset.
Rail franchising outstripped the ability of the director of Passenger Rail Franchising, the subsequent Strategic Rail Authority and then the DfT to make it work. It has withered on the vine with two-thirds of contracts since 2012 issued without competition.
Fragmentation has left passengers with what industry watchers have termed “obscenely complicated” ticketing systems. Twenty-eight companies charge different amounts at different times, for tickets that are only valid on certain routes with prices depending on the date of purchase.
Although the ticketing system is decentralised, experts complain that centrally specified rolling stock gives passengers hard and cramped seats. Patchy delivery of electrification has left many services running on diesel. Rail Safety and Standards Board research found that air quality levels for passengers on some modern diesel trains can be up to 13 times worse than standing beside a busy road in central London.
The Williams report recommended that a new body, Great British Railways, should be created to pull the system together. The plan was to learn from the successes of Transport for London. Its bus services are run by concession — companies bid to provide and operate the city’s buses in a competitive process, but the specifications, prices and ticketing systems are controlled by TfL.
Or, as the Williams-Shapps document put it succinctly: “We now propose the biggest change to the railways in 25 years, ending the fragmentation of the past and bringing the network under single national leadership.”
In this model, GBR would “own the infrastructure, receive the fare revenue, run and plan the network and set most fares and timetables”. The current infrastructure owner, Network Rail, would be “absorbed into this new organisation”, as would many of the functions of the Rail Delivery Group and the Department for Transport.
GBR would grant concessions to competing rail providers. The new body could start by simplifying and automating the fare and ticketing system. It would then move on to build a coherent national plan for rail based on work already done by Network Rail and its GBR Transition Team.
Unfortunately, given the political turmoil in government through much of 2022, early implementation of these plans seems unlikely. The rail industry fears that nothing much will happen soon, while there is little sign that the reforms are a government priority. Ministers are evasive about what might happen when.
But the groundwork has been done. The plan is there and should be implemented. If not, long after the strikes have faded away and the railways have resumed their gradual recovery from the pandemic, the fragmentation and harmful absence of a guiding mind to manage Britain’s railways will persist.