Thursday 20th May 2021
It’s definitely not a return to British Railways, Grant Shapps was at pains to point out on this morning’s media circuit. This is going to be very different. It’s “simplification” not “re-nationalisation”.
Because it’s called Great British Railways. Not British Railways.
But it’ll bring back control of tracks and operations together. It’ll look after timetables, fares and, well, just about everything else really. Just like happened under British Railways. Save for the actual operation of the trains.
All the reassuring buzzwords were thrown at this morning’s media launch. The much vaunted “Guiding Mind” the railways have missed out on all this time will be arriving on platform 1 …. in about two or three years.
But surely it’s not a “Guiding Mind” we need. It’s a “Decision Making Mind”. The ability to make decisions best for passengers. Free from Ministerial and civil service interference. Like the colour and type of seat fabric used on trains. Or whether printed timetable booklets are allowed. Or whether tickets issued as “Thameslink only” can be used on Southern trains. That type of stuff.
Yet where does the responsibility line from Great British Railways end up on the organisation chart for the new regime? To the Secretary of State of course, which means a few hundred civil servants at the DfT, and not forgetting the Treasury. And the No 10 Policy bods too. (Interestingly there’s no line upwards on the chart … only a line downwards … which is kind of symbolic don’t you think?!)
Shapps was pointing out this morning the new regime will do away with all the confusion caused by having different ticket machines allegedly selling different tickets in many stations. Politicians like to create the illusion it’s all complicated, without admitting they’re the ones who’ve overseen and encouraged the current way of working. Oh, and the fact is those ticket machines may be in different colours at certain main line stations, but the screens all sell exactly the same tickets. Shapps loves to pedal the alternative myth they don’t.
And those tickets you might only be able to use on one train company’s services rather than another. Well, that’s because they offer a cheaper alternative. So in the new “simplified” regime, will we see prices being subjected to the infamous Government’s much loved “levelling up” agenda? As in “levelling up” prices. I’m doubtful the Treasury – who really have been, are, and always will be the real “Guiding Mind” will allow a “levelling down”.
So how will those great bargain fares on Thameslink (as opposed to Southern) or London NorthWestern Railway (as opposed to Avanti West Coast) or TransPennine Express (as opposed to LNER) be explained once the Great British Railways brand is inevitably rolled out across the network to impress us all things really are different. Watch out for a backlash from passengers when they realise the once pilloried brand confusion gives way to fare increases.
Another great benefit of the rail revolution the Secretary of State highlighted this morning was there being no longer a need for the 400 staff employed sorting out delay attribution between Network Rail and the Train Operating Companies. Really? So if a pheasant flies into the overheard wires on the East Coast Main Line disrupting services for a couple of hours and it impacts the performance of trains provided by the contractors running the former Cross Country, LNER, TransPennine Express and Northern Rail franchises, now morphed into the exciting new “Passenger Service Contracts”, those companies being monitored on their reliability performance aren’t going to want to investigate the cause of disruption and whether they should be held accountable? No chance. I reckon many of those 400 jobs will be secure for years to come. Certainly until a time, if ever, the whole operation of trains is brought back under the same Great British Railways organisation. Rather like it was with British Railways.
Reading “The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail” reminded me of “Buses Back Better”. It’s full of wonderful words which no-one can disagree with: “we want our trains to run on time”; “trains will be better co- ordinated with other forms of transport, such as buses and bikes”, “improved customer service”; “will secure significant efficiencies”; “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”; “a simpler, more integrated structure will cut duplication” etc etc.
A good test of any strategy document of this kind is to ask if the virtuous aspirations were put in the negative how would they sound … eg “we don’t want our trains to run on time”; “trains will be worse co-ordinated” etc etc. It would be a patent nonsense. So, once has to ask, how will these wise words make a difference?
Still, the rebrand will keep the sign writers and vinyl and paint manufacturers busy for the next few years. Recruitment consultants and HR specialists are going to have a whale of a time as TOCs shed no longer needed staff while Great British Railways sets up as a whole new organisation, as well as absorbing Network Rail.
It’s going to be interesting to see how the blob labelled “Regional partners and devolved authorities” on the “Future Industry Structure” chart really is going to interact with the four blobs called “Secretary of State”, “Great British Railways”, “Regional railways’ passenger service operators” and “Devolved and open access passenger operators”. That looks like a lot of committees to me. And not a recipe for simplification.
The White Paper explains the “devolved authorities … will continue to exercise their current powers … award contracts and set fares on their services ….” adding …. “this includes supporting a single national network, including one website and app and delivering consistent branding …”. I wonder what Scotland, Wales, London, Merseyside and Tyne and Wear think about that. TfL are not renowned for promoting the National Rail double arrow symbol on London Overground stations, for example.
I’m sure it’ll all work out better though. I’m certainly looking forward to all the trains I catch running on time and paying those much simpler fares and it all being branded Great British Railways.