Barely 18 months have elapsed since a starry-eyed Grant Shapps unveiled the blueprint for a “revolutionary” Great British Railways, but it already has the flavor of an optimistic misnomer. Even an adequate British railway would be welcomed by those passengers stranded by everything from Avanti’s collapse to failing infrastructure and unprecedented strikes.
Only a fraction of the timetabled trains continue to run between London and Britain’s biggest cities, though operator Avanti has pledged to start its recovery to full service this week. National strikes, the likes of which had not been seen for 30 years, are now a regular occurrence, with little sign of breakthrough in talks. Infrastructure projects have been wall back or shelved, with the public all but gaslit with renounced schemes for new railways.
Rail’s financial structures, credited by proponents of privatization with revitalizing the industry for 25 years, have been ripped up. The pandemic played a hugely damaging role, prompting the blanket scrapping of franchising as passenger revenue disappeared. But Covid arguably only accelerated the death of a system that was already acknowledged to be falling apart.
The Williams-Shapps review, commissioned back in 2018, long gestating and long delayed, ended up with the proposed creation of Great British Railways – a guiding mind, bringing together Network Rail and train operators, issuing better contracts, with sensible fares and ticketing, putting passengers first and independent of government micromanagement. Few in the industry argued with the conclusions. But few now are sure exactly when – or if – they will be followed through.
A transition team is in place, working up the details from the white paper. But many see little prospect in this parliamentary session for the bill promised in the Queen’s speech.
Even before Shapps departed in Boris Johnson’s wake, the Department for Transport’s officials found themselves in an unexpected battle. A year after the plan was released, fundamental aspects were not agreed with the Treasury. Internal documents seen by the Guardian reveal clashes over core policy issues, such as whether the new GBR would indeed have independent control of timetabling and the design of services, or where revenue risk should lie.
Civil servants have grown increasingly disillusioned with progress, despite the millions spent, the time invested, and the platoons of consultants employed. The most tangible sign of action was the public poll launched this summer, in a Shapps wheeze, to pick the future HQ of GBR. The results are still under wraps, unsettling rail staff already installed in London and Milton Keynes, and leaving some to ponder whether they are ready for life in Doncaster, if the favorite York doesn’t make it.
That announcement is apparently one of the first in the in-tray of new transport secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan – even if rail’s wider purgatory may not end soon. But, as one rail source puts it: “Something’s got to give. The industry’s in a complete month, there’s no certainty. GBR was meant to be the future. Delaying it is just prolonging the paralysis.”
Christian Wolmar, the rail historian, makes a blunter prediction: “GBR is dead. There is no legislation and they will have to muddy through. The grand ideas did not really agree. Does this government really like the idea of a strong arms-length organization running the railways?”
The railway’s problems are evident, he says: “When you travel in the trains there’s a feeling that no one really cares if the trains are late, or where you need to go. If they keep trying to push through cuts it will deteriorate. There’s a real breakdown in morale in managers and staff.”
The mini-budget unveiled on Friday by Kwasi Kwarteng is unlikely to help: announcing plans to stop strikes and hamper unions asking for a cost-of-living pay rise, while effectively raising the pay of bosses across the negotiating table – let alone its wider economic effects on the industry.
The government did not confirm whether it would be taking forward Shapps’ GBR plans. A DfT spokesperson says: “Our railways are in need of modernization and this new government is committed to building a reliable, punctual and affordable service that’s fit for the 21st century.”
They add: “We’re accelerating a number of rail projects through our ambitious new Growth Plan, and our £96bn integrated rail plan will deliver improvements quicker than previous plans and benefit millions for generations to come by electrifying lines, delivering hi-tech trains and powering up projects like HS2.”
The promise to “accelerate infrastructure schemes”, such as Northern Powerhouse Rail, listed vaguely at no 96 in the appendix of the growth plan, received a skeptical welcome from an industry which has waited years for a basic pipeline of works to be updated. Those closer to the flagship schemes already approved, such as East-West Rail, are already hinting they are more likely to be abandoned.
For Wolmar, the industry – still under instruction to close the £2bn revenue gap from lost commuters – is at its lowest ebb since the disaster-scarred days of Railtrack, two decades ago. “The problem this time is that it’s really structural,” he says. “You can’t see a way out of it all without very strong direction. But after franchising, there’s no real idea what to do.”
Reform may instead come from a different political direction: Labour, leading strongly in the polls since Friday, reaffirmed at conference its commitment to renationalisation of rail as train operators’ contracts expire. Unless GBR is up and running by 2024, it may find it has run out of track.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism