Television has given us “The Great British Bake Off”, “The Great British Sewing Bee”, “Great British Menu” and “Great British Railway Journeys” as programmes for our delectation and entertainment. Now the Williams and Shapps plan, determined not to be outdone, but hardly in a display of originality, is offering us Great British Railways. The Secretary of State is at pains to tell us that the proposed changes for our railways, extending the role of the public sector, are simplification not renationalisation. The changes may not mean full public ownership but they are certainly a further step closer to it, and would make the final switch easier, which is no doubt why the Secretary of State doth protest so much.
The plan does a demolition job on the failed, fragmented privatisation of our railways and the insuperable problems it has created, which the Secretary of State now admits can no longer be allowed to continue. The plan is basically a statement of hope and assertions about what the proposed new structure and Great British Railways will deliver. The shadow Secretary of State has already written to Grant Shapps with questions on 15 initial specific points and we await a detailed written response. I will, though, make a few points now.
The plan makes great play of 400 jobs that exist to determine the allocation of blame for delays. The need to do this will seemingly disappear under Great British Railways. Yet the Government talk about incentivising train operators to run services on time. Whether that also means penalties for running services late is not clear. Either way, there will presumably still be a need to determine where responsibility for a delay lies, since it would hardly be appropriate to attribute to a train operator, on a management contract with incentives to run services on time, responsibility for a passenger train delay caused by a track or signalling failure or another operator.
We need to know far more about how the proposed incentives regime will work and its potential rewards and for whom. Even Great British Railways is going to be incentivised. The plan refers to the perverse effect of incentives under franchising arrangements. We could be in danger of going down that same path again, despite the repeated assertions in the plan to the contrary. Train operators will continue to bear cost risk, but there will be incentives to run trains to time, to run clean trains, to run safe trains, to run high-quality services, to manage costs, to attract more passengers and to work with other railway organisations for the greater good. It will be some bureaucracy that will be needed to devise, manage and supervise that sort of regime if these are more than token gesture incentives—and all because the Government are not prepared to countenance Great British Railways operating the rail services itself.
That is also why the plan represents change from what we have at present, rather than the transformative, generational change that the Secretary of State wants us to believe. There is little more than a passing reference in the White Paper to the rolling stock leasing companies. No case has been made for why, almost alone, they need to continue in their present form, or indeed at all, in a situation where Great British Railways will have ownership of the railway infrastructure and assets, apart, it seems, from the rolling stock. This is despite the plan asserting that the new structure will increase Great British Railways’ purchasing power and economies of scale, and bemoaning the fact that we have so many variations in rolling stock.
Likewise, from reading the White Paper one would hardly know that we have elected metro mayors with responsibilities over transport. Giving metro mayors much greater responsibility, certainly for local rail services within their areas, and the associated resources, is not something that appears to be being entertained. It looks as though Mr Grayling’s boast as Secretary of State that he would not hand over control of rail services to a Labour mayor may still inform the Government’s claimed non-ideological approach.
We will need clarity on what specific responsibilities and powers are being transferred from the Department for Transport to Great British Railways, and what specific railway responsibilities and powers are being retained or created within the department. Likewise, we will need clarity on the impact of the proposals on the powers of the devolved Administrations. I assume that the transfer of undertakings regulations will apply to all staff transferred from their existing employer to Great British Railways or any other railway organisation. Legislation will be required to implement some of these proposals, not least in relation to the creation, governance, roles and responsibilities of Great British Railways and other statutory bodies whose remit is changed.
The plan refers to financial resources covering five-year periods. One assumes that also applies to Great British Railways. Those resources need to be guaranteed if service levels and quality are to be maintained and improved, and rolling programmes of investment sustained, but the plan does not make it clear whether that will be the case or how. We are already hearing noises that the Treasury is demanding significant savings. Indeed, the plan asserts that the new structure and working procedures will save £1.5 billion.
I pay tribute to the role and work of railway staff during the pandemic. I hope the Government are determined to see our railways make a full recovery from its effects and then develop further, because the plan blows a bit hot and cold on this. The foreword says:
“Much of the old demand will return … This government profoundly believes in the future of the railways. Without them, our cities could not function … We are growing the network, not shrinking it.”
Yet tucked away in the section of the plan on “Empowering rail’s people”, it states:
“The future of the sector hangs in the balance.”
That is a very different tone. Which represents the Government’s true thinking and intentions will become clearer when we find out whether the emphasis of these changes is on achieving a rapid reduction in costs, at all costs, or on growing the network and recognising that the value of our railways to the quality of life of our citizens and the economic well-being and strength of our country extends far beyond the content of a Treasury financial spreadsheet.