The future of the proposed Great British Railways (GBR), one of the biggest planned shake-ups of Britain’s rail sector in decades, is at a crossroads.
Initially put forward by Boris Johnson in 2021, the plan was to create a state-owned public body to act as a unifying ‘guiding mind’ for Britain’s struggling rail sector.
The body would reduce pesky ministerial meddling and provide oversight and accountability for the complex web of different groups which make up Britain’s rail network.
It was seen as a fix for a crisis-hit railway service that has never truly recovered from the pandemic, with delays across the network and industrial action now commonplace.
But the reforms have been delayed and have fallen well down the legislative agenda of recent governments.
GBR was initially included in last springs’ Transport Bill, but was scrapped in October by the then-transport secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who said it would not go ahead in the current session.
The government insists it “remains fully committed” to the plans, but recent reports have hinted at attempts to water down or scrap it entirely.
The rail sector, meanwhile, believes that bringing GBR legislation forward is the number one priority and many are concerned a fast approaching general election could push things back further.
Writing in The Times last month, Iain Stewart, chairman of the Transport Select Committee warned that “without legislation soon… the chance to fix Britain’s railways and deliver rapid improvement for the customer is slipping away and alternative reforms could become more salient.”
Stewart told City A.M. that although some of the work on GBR could be done without legislation, bringing it forward, in either primary or secondary form, would give “passengers and the industry much reassurance.”
There is also the vital aspect of giving businesses and infrastructure investors’ the confidence to invest in a sector that has faced huge financial difficulty since the Covid pandemic.
In May, 60 business leaders in the rail and infrastructure sector wrote to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for that reason, urging him not to delay legislation that would establish GBR beyond the current parliament.
Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association – a representative body who organised the letter – told City A.M. the government must push on with the legislation to give “rail customers, businesses and infrastructure investors the certainty they require.”
Underpinning it all though is Network Rail, the body which manages the entire system’s infrastructure.
The group has faced significant financial and operational issues under a system which gives the Treasury and the Department for Transport close control of its operations.
It swung to a £1.1bn loss earlier this year and has come under political and regulatory pressure for ongoing poor performance.
A Network Rail official described the degree of government involvement in running the rail network as “not sustainable,” adding that “reform is needed and a new ‘guiding mind’ created to take on the responsibility for the strategy and direction of the industry.”
The spokesperson told City A.M. that “GBR is currently the only way on the table to resolve the biggest issues of responsibility and cost on the railway.”
Britains’ railways need an urgent fix and while there is no one solution, the sector remains surprisingly unified in giving its backing to GBR – it just needs to be delivered.