Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has emphasised that the establishment of Great British Railways (GBR), which brings together passenger services and rail infrastructure, is intended to expand the network rather than shrink it. This move represents the most significant transformation in the railway sector in the past 25 years and aims to formulate a 30-year strategy for the industry. GBR is projected to achieve annual savings of £1.5 billion after five years by capitalising on increased purchasing power, economies of scale, and streamlining maintenance, renewals, and upgrades.
The inception of GBR is a response to the findings of the Williams Review, led by former British Airways CEO Keith Williams, which was initiated in May 2018 following the disruptions caused by timetable changes and the failure of the East Coast franchise. The White Paper acknowledges that the shortcomings of Network Rail were instrumental in the timetable collapse, and previous reforms failed to control costs. Despite delays caused by the pandemic and the subsequent government intervention in the train operating company franchises, Shapps and Williams anticipate a return of much of the pre-pandemic demand, albeit with altered travel patterns.
GBR's mandate includes prioritising the government's objectives for the rail sector, formulating a 30-year strategy with five-year business plans, ensuring safe and efficient operations, being accountable for passenger services, managing stations and infrastructure, supporting the rail freight market, and empowering regional decision-making. Shapps and Williams assert that GBR will bring substantial efficiencies by simplifying the complex network of agreements between numerous parties, minimising legal disputes, and enabling agile decision-making that aligns with the interests of passengers, freight customers, and communities.
The establishment of GBR aims to create a more streamlined structure and eliminate the existing silos within the railway industry. While various bodies will continue to exist after the reform, the goal is to ensure their motives, interests, and incentives align harmoniously with each other and with the stakeholders. The White Paper also aims to eradicate the prevalent blame culture, highlighting the employment of "train delay attributes" and emphasising the need for a solution-oriented approach rather than a focus on assigning fault.
The name Network Rail is expected to persist until 2024, coinciding with the conclusion of the current five-year control period (CP6). The White Paper outlines GBR's pivotal role in achieving decarbonisation across the entire rail network, including the trial of battery and hydrogen-powered trains on routes where electrification is not economically viable. The paper sets a target to eliminate diesel trains from the network by 2040. An advisory group, led by Network Rail CEO Andrew Haines, will oversee the implementation of the recommendations put forth in the Williams-Shapps Review. Haines will develop interim arrangements in collaboration with various industry stakeholders, including the Rail Delivery Group, government entities, and Network Rail while continuing his current role at Network Rail.
Haines stated, "Passengers deserve a reliable, affordable, and sustainable railway that prioritises their needs. Today's announcement will help us achieve that by simplifying the railway system and dismantling the legacy of complexity and fragmentation. Passengers and freight users will once again be at the forefront of a service designed and operated to cater to their requirements."