Great British Railways | What does it mean for infrastructure investment?

Posted on 24 May 2021

​Transport secretary Grant Shapps has said that the formation of Great British Railways to bring together passenger services and rail infrastructure is aimed at “growing the network, not shrinking it”.

Under the new organisation Network Rail, along with functions from the Rail Delivery Group and Department for Transport will be absorbed as the government delivers what has been described as “the biggest change to railways in 25 years” and aims to lay out a 30 year strategy for the sector.

GBR is expected to deliver £1.5bn in savings a year after five years as a result of “increased purchasing power and economies of scale, and make it easier and cheaper to plan maintenance, renewals and upgrades”.

The Williams Review, chaired by former British Airways boss Keith Williams, was launched in May 2018 and triggered by chaos created by timetable changes that year and the failure of the East Coast franchise. The White Paper states that “failings at Network Rail were central to the collapse of the timetable” and previous reforms had failed to control costs.

The original review was expected to be published 18 months ago but was delayed as the effects of the pandemic hit passenger numbers using the UK rail network and the government effectively nationalised the existing train operating company franchises, at a cost of £12bn, as a result.

Despite the delay as a result of the pandemic, Shapps and Williams predict in the foreword of the White Paper that much of the pre-pandemic demand will return but travel patterns are likely to be different.

GBR’s remit is set out as delivering on the government’s priorities for rail; developing a 30 year strategy with five year business plans; being responsible for safe and efficient operation; being accountable for the passenger offering; own and operate stations and infrastructure; support the rail freight market; and empower regional decision making.

“GBR will secure significant efficiencies,” they state. “Today’s railways are a maze of agreements between hundreds of different parties, drawn up and policed by battalions of lawyers and consultants, including an entire staff dedicated to arguing about who is at fault for each delayed train. Change is slow and comes by painstaking negotiation. In the new world, that cannot work. Under single national leadership, our railways will be more agile: able to react quicker, spot opportunities, make common-­sense choices, and use the kind of operational flexibilities normal in most organisations, but difficult or impossible in the current contractual spider’s web.”

The formation of GBR aims to create a simpler structure and remove silos within the railway business. The report said: “A plethora of passenger, freight and open access operators, rolling-stock leasing companies, regulators, passenger watchdogs, a police force, a co­ordination and trade body, the Department for Transport and devolved counterparts and the infrastructure owner, Network Rail, all have to work together. That is before adding in the extensive supply chain, and companies contracted by those above who in turn subcontract.”

The formation of GBR does not mean that the variety of bodies will disappear following the reform but the aim is to ensure those that remain do not have “different motives, interests and incentives that do not always align with each other or with the interests of the passengers, freight customers and communities”.

The White Paper sets out to remove what is described as a “blame culture” and points to the employment of 400 people known as “train delay attributors” who determine over whose fault a delay on the network is. “While this plays an important role in measuring performance across track and train, it is symptomatic of a misaligned focus on blame, rather than solutions,” said the report.

The Network Rail name looks set to remain until 2024 when the current five year control period (CP6) ends.

According to the White Paper, GBR will play a key role in delivering decarbonisation of the whole rail network as part of its 30 year strategy, which is likely to include battery and hydrogen-powered trains trialled on routes where electrification is uneconomic. The paper sets out the ambition to remove diesel trains from the network by 2040.

An advisory group, led by Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines, is set to be established to ensure the proposals set out in the Williams-Shapps Review are implements. Haines is set to develop plans for establishing interim arrangements drawing from across the industry and beyond, including RDG, government and Network Rail. He will undertake this alongside his existing role at Network Rail.

Haines said: "Passengers deserve a reliable, affordable and sustainable railway, focussed on them. Today’s announcement will help us deliver that by simplifying the railway, paving the way to dismantle the legacy of complexity and fragmentation. Passengers and freight users will once more be put front and centre of a service designed and run for their needs.

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