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The Frankal-Frankal take on the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail

The Frankal-Frankal take on the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail

Yesterday, on the third anniversary of the infamous May 2018 timetable change disaster, the government outlined their vision for the UK rail network. This shake-up was a long time coming – franchising was already dying even before the pandemic – and, short of fully renationalising the railway, the new structure outlined in the ‘Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail’ is the logical next step.

You can read the whole 116-page document here, if that’s your kind of thing.

In summary, a new organisation is being created to run the rail network. It will be called “Great British Railways” (GBR) (not to be confused with the long-running Michael Portillo BBC series, Great British Railway Journeys). It will combine ownership and maintenance of the infrastructure in England, Scotland and Wales (currently the remit of Network Rail) and the overarching management and direction of passenger services. At the moment, this is largely done by the Department for Transport, which was responsible for awarding and specifying the franchises. Over the last two decades, the DfT has increasingly involved itself in the micro-management of timetables and rolling stock, even down to specifying the seats. GBR will take over this role, as well as much of the current remit of another government-owned entity, the Rail Delivery Group, such as ticketing. GBR will take over the branding of the train services (so expect to see more of the double arrow), and will have regional subdivisions, based on the existing Network Rail regions. The Office of Rail and Road (the regulator) will be tasked with scrutinising GBR and acting as a mediator between GBR and the operators.

Rail franchises were already replaced with emergency concession agreements in March 2020, with private operators in England being paid a fee to run the service by the government, which collects ticket revenue, rather than the ticket revenue going directly to the operator. Wales has quietly renationalised its passenger services, with Scotland preparing to do the same. Under the new system, GBR will take on the role of agreeing ‘Passenger Service Contracts’ with private operators in England, similar to the model used on the London Overground. This should simplify the financing of train services and end the headache of delay attribution; as Grant Shapps points out, under the current system, hitting a small bird is the fault of the operator, but a large bird is the fault of Network Rail. According to Shapps, this new structure will incentivise operators to focus on running the trains on time.

So are the Tories implementing a Corbyn policy? Not really. This is not, as Shapps is painfully keen to point out, a return to the “bad old days” of British Rail. In justifying his aversion to old-school renationalisation, Shapps points out one of the main problems with British Rail was the lack of government funding, something that is surely a question of government policy rather than ownership structure (spoiler alert, this is going to be a recurring theme here). He is also keen to stress the contributions of the private sector to the industry, despite overseeing a set of railway reforms which substantially reduces said contribution. The reasoning given for not just going the whole hog and letting GBR run the trains themselves is fairly weak. But, for what it’s worth, the new structure gives the collective public sector so much control over the rail operators that it doesn’t really matter. How the trains are run matters far more than who actually runs them.

Beyond the headline restructuring and the branding, the real meat is in the policy. The Williams-Shapps report does outline a few genuine, much-needed changes; flexible season tickets (coming this summer), more integrated ticketing, expanded pay-as-you-go and simplification of Delay Repay. Such improvements could have, in theory, been delivered under the existing industry structure, but fragmentation and bureaucracy has slowed things down; plans to introduce pay-as-you-go in the North of England have made little progress in the last five years, for instance.

But when it comes to long term improvements in the rail infrastructure itself, the report gives little away. A generalised commitment to decarbonisation and electrification is made. Those hoping for a comprehensive infrastructure plan may be a little disappointed, but that was never what this particular report was intended to provide. References are made to no less than three ongoing infrastructure reviews/plans: An upcoming ‘Integrated Rail Plan’, a ‘Comprehensive Environment Plan’ to be published in 2022 and Sir Peter Hendy’s ‘Union Connectivity Review’. Not to mention Shapps’ pet project, the ‘Restoring your Railways Fund’.

Will these new infrastructure plans show a newfound commitment to actually investing in the rail network? Will Chris Grayling’s cuts be reversed? Will Platforms 15/16 at Manchester Piccadilly finally be approved? Will electric wires reach Nottingham and Sheffield this century? The signals are mixed; on the one hand, the publicity around the launch of GBR suggests the government want to at least look like they care about trains. On the other hand, the publicity around the launch of GBR may be deemed enough to say “look, we reformed the rail network, what more could you possibly want from us?”, leading to another decade of little actual improvement. The vultures at the Treasury are increasingly looking to reduce expenditure on the railway; the report repeatedly points out that a whopping £12bn has already been spent just keeping the rail network running during the pandemic, when passenger numbers bottomed out at just 4% of usual demand. Repeated references are made to savings from “increased efficiency”, without mentioning where said savings will go. The prospect of a real-terms budget cut looks worryingly likely.

According to the report, “Great British Railways will be accountable to ministers”. Those same ministers “will be given statutory powers to set long-term strategy and have powers to issue guidance and mandatory direction to GBR on any matter at any time”.

With the death of franchising, a new way of operating the trains is needed. This new plan delivers this, along with a much-needed image overhaul of the railway (even if the new name is “a bit naff”) and some genuine improvements such as flexible ticketing. It’s not renationalisation, but the Conservatives were never going to do that anyway. However, the need for government accountability and long-term infrastructure investment remains as it was. The only reference made to Oxford, Sheffield or Swansea was in blaming Network Rail for failing to complete its electrification programmes, despite Shapps’ predecessor, Chris Grayling, being responsible for cancelling those schemes. According to the report, “Great British Railways will be accountable to ministers”. Those same ministers “will be given statutory powers to set long-term strategy and have powers to issue guidance and mandatory direction to GBR on any matter at any time”. In other words, when it comes to long-term infrastructure projects, the government remains very much in charge, yet GBR will take the blame when things go wrong. Plus ca change.

David Frankal is Joint Chief Executive at Enroute. This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

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