The Rt Hon Mark Harper MP, Transport Secretary, gave an address at the Institute of Civil Engineers in London on 7 February 2023 in what was billed as the big announcement on Great British Railways.
In it he affirmed his commitment to rail and outlined plans to modernise the industry. His reference to Bradshaw was that Bradshaw brought order to the chaos of the Victorian network. In his opening remarks the most telling sentence was “...the more things have changed outside the railways, the more they seem to have stayed the same inside.” He reiterated the previous Transport Secretary’s address 6 years ago when the call was made for a more flexible, more accountable and more joined up railway. It was clear that he feels that no progress has been made and that these principles still apply.
The key test, given this prolonged failure, is whether there is evidence in the speech that the Great British Railways plan will address this issue. Railfuture has therefore looked carefully at each section in the speech.
The key allegation is that the railways “are not fit for purpose”, citing strikes and the need for a 7 day railway, for reliability and also the need for flexibility for freight and efficiency given scrutiny on public spending, ie “The railways need fundamental reform.”
Mr Harper stressed that despite political and economic turbulence, the government has given full backing to the £96 billion Integrated Rail Plan (HS2 to Manchester, Northern Powerhouse Rail and East West Rail.) Railfuture members will be aware that this actually refers to a scaled back HS2 and a more modest upgrade of the existing Trans Pennine route.
The proposition is that future infrastructure spending is wasted if our railway model is stuck in the past, with fragmentation quickly forgetting the customer: “An industry in no man’s land.” Mr Harper repeated the 7 day a week requirement, without the need currently to depend on volunteers, citing the misery of attempting to use the railway on Sundays.
Mr Harper stressed that the railways would not have survived over the Covid period but for government support, and also that an economic model that depends on 5 day a week commuting is done. He also questioned why subsidies should be made to an industry that delivers only 1.5% and 2% of all journeys. (The actual number depends on how we define journeys. It is commonly accepted that rail has a 10% market share. Nevertheless the point is made.)
So back to the 'broken model' unable to adapt to customer needs, with the inevitable consequence, if left untreated, of driving passengers away with poor performance and hence fewer services.
“So yes, we will create a more customer focused and joined up railway.” The Transport Secretary should have stopped there, but in true Tory dogma mode added: “But we want to go further and actually enhance the role of the private sector....”
This is the section on extending Pay as you Go and the move toward single leg ticketing with airline style pricing, ie by individual train. Both these are welcome, particularly as so many journeys are not simply out and back. Critics may say prices will go up, but of course the industry is perfectly capable of increasing prices anyway as we all know. Single trips should be cheaper.
The big news is that Great British Railways will go ahead. Agreeing on where the HQ will be is deferred until Easter. There was no information on the branding. Track and train is not combined but the reference is to a single coordinating body and the removal of the blame culture and internal compensation bureaucracy, so providing a single point of accountability.
Mr Harper stressed that this is not a return to British Rail, nor a Network Rail takeover, but an arms’ length body with "industry experts” for regional body contact. This suggests that this does not mean devolution either.
The speech had no detail on the actual structure proposed.
Private Sector Offer
“Passenger numbers doubled under privatisation.” We all know however that the jury is still out on whether that was on account of “private sector marketing expertise” or other factors such as the economy and congestion. However it is clear that there will be no turning back on “commercial expertise”. There will be new passenger commercial contracts with performance incentives (albeit less commercial risk), opening up railway data systems, lowering barriers to entry and encouraging open access operators. The old chestnut of commercial exploitation of land and property is also there as it has been in all previous announcements, presumably discounting progress already made in this area.
Whist there is no detail on rail reform it is clear that this is what is intended. Instead it would appear that the process is just starting rather than being announced in the speech. Right at the end “leadership” is mentioned. Railfuture contends that lack of industry leadership is the root problem and has said so in consultation responses.
The three key objectives summarised are:
- to put customers first
- to realise the benefits of GBR
- to help enhance the role of the private sector
Railfuture will be checking on the plans for GBR as the structure and detail is announced. We will refer particularly to how these objectives will be addressed and implications against Railfutures objectives of a bigger, better railway addressing the country’s economic, social , transport and environmental objectives.
The George Bradshaw address as given.
Railfuture letter to Rail Minister Huw Merriman