Is Great British Railways still on track?

Model railway
Monta Drozdova

The delivery of the biggest rail reform since the 1990s seems to be stalling in its tracks since the Great British Railways plans were announced in 2021. Whilst delays in delivering primary legislation have been greeted with widespread concern over the last eight months, there are still reforms which are gathering pace – we explore some of these below.

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, published in May 2021, set out wide-ranging proposals for the reform of the rail industry, with the purpose of ending the fragmentation that has plagued the UK rail system for decades. At the core of these integration efforts is the establishment of Great British Railways (“GBR”) as a single ‘guiding mind’ for the rail industry in Great Britain.

Under the current plans, GBR would replace Network Rail as the operator of rail infrastructure, also controlling the contracting of train operations, the setting of timetables and fares, and the collection of fare revenue in the majority of England. The project was initially due to be launched in early 2024, but faced delays after the government axed its plan to introduce a Transport Bill during the current parliamentary session, citing the need to prioritise legislation related to the energy crisis.

There has been widespread concern over the progress of delivering on these ambitions, although Ministers are continuing to insist that primary legislation (under a now named ‘Future of Transport Bill’) will be taken forward ‘when parliamentary time allows’. Whilst this time is fast running out, there are reforms which are being progressed ahead of the primary legislation.

To date, GBR progress has not been as visible perhaps given wider service disruptions from industrial action, issues over performance and the ongoing impact of the pandemic.

Among the GBR transition team’s main priorities is fares and ticketing reform, which does not require primary legislation. The aim is to develop a more modern retail experience, rolling out digital ticketing across the network, contactless and pay as you go systems in urban areas, and “simplified, best-available value-for-money options on journeys outside urban areas”.

Some progress on these reforms has taken place since 2020 – even before the release of the Williams-Shapps Plan. This includes a £360m investment package to deliver contactless tap-in and tap-out ticketing outside of London. Trials also have taken place which have seen return off-peak train fares scrapped in favour of simplified “single-leg” pricing on the London North Eastern Railway’s (LNER) East Coast main line (extended last week).

The concept of single-leg pricing might not sound very dramatic, but it is an important step in the simplification of fares, as it ensures customers can easily buy the cheapest combination of fares for their journey, both out and back. These extended trials are a good basis for delivering fare reform as a quick win for passengers. The extent of the fare and ticketing reform revolution, which could be delivered by GBR in the medium and long term, is yet to be seen, but the limited trials have widely been seen as a positive start.

The second strand of GBR’s work focuses on local and regional partnerships – an issue of significant interest to UTG member transport authorities. The rail plan committed to introduce “new partnerships between Great British Railways and local and regional government to give local leaders a greater say in how the railways are run in their area”. The partnerships would include tailored agreements for greater control of stations, services, fares and local infrastructure.

Most significant recent progress in this area is the feature of GBR Rail Partnerships in the latest devolution deals – both the Trailblazer deals (which have been struck with Greater Manchester and West Midlands) as well as the new Metro Mayor deals, which are currently awaiting a Parliament order (York and North Yorkshire, East Midlands, Norfolk, Suffolk). For the new Trailblazer deals, the GBR partnership is set to deliver first pilots on integrated fares and ticketing by the end of the year, working towards full integration of rail services by 2030.

Since the conclusion of the GBR headquarters competition (congratulations to Derby!), Ministers have confirmed that further ‘empowered’ regional hubs will be delivered in due course, equipped with decision making and investment powers to benefit their local communities.

The Plan for Rail also highlighted the role of community rail partnerships, with a commitment for these to be “empowered to strengthen rail’s social and economic impact”. The grassroots movement has been growing across the UK, with around 75 community rail partnerships currently engaging local communities, promoting social inclusion and sustainable travel, working alongside train operators to encourage improvements and bring stations back to life. It’s unclear yet, however, how these groups would be involved in the regionalised governance structures.

The development of a Long-Term Strategy for Rail is also under way – another major piece of work which can be delivered without primary legislation. December 2021 saw the launch of a call for evidence to help inform the development of a long-term strategy for the railway, setting the strategic context and key priorities for the sector. A report was published in June 2022 highlighting the stakeholders’ views on how rail can contribute to five strategic objectives set by government - meeting customers’ needs, delivering financial sustainability, contributing to long-term economic growth, levelling up and connectivity, and delivering environmental sustainability. Since then, according to the transition team, work on the strategy is underway.  

Finally, amongst the most significant and contentious GBR work streams, are workforce reforms. This work is now inherently tied with the ongoing negotiations with unions and is therefore taking on a timeline of its own.

Whilst the perception of a hiatus in the delivery of the primary legislation is causing understandable concern amongst the industry and stakeholders, the ongoing work on regulation, process and above-mentioned reforms could bring about quick wins for passengers and lay a basis for the major overhaul set out in the 2021 plans. It is therefore crucial to continue to build on this work and harness the progress and opportunity to secure a stable footing for the much-needed reform of rail.

Monta Drozdova is Policy and Research Advisor at the Urban Transport Group

The Urban Transport Group’s Rail Strategy Group and Rail Devolution Group meets regularly with the GBR Transition Team.