Great British Railspin

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.

Roger French

13 thoughts on “Great British Railspin

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  1. Since nationalisation the railways where always split internally; the regions of BR, the a much more serious and damaging split: the sectors and sub sectors,then the franchises and now coming together,sort of,but private companies will ,out of Thatcherite dogma, be allowed to run them still but as direct concessions.a bit more unclear what’ll happen with open access passenger and freight trains.also with Scotland and Wales as Great Britain is the geographical name of the whole island I assume that would have their trains run by this organization too?I can’t see the Scottish apart from the dwindling number of British nationalists who live there been too happy about it?


  2. But if “operators on some routes, particularly long-distance, will have more commercial freedom” & “with local leaders given greater control over local ticketing, timetables and stations” it still sounds complex and definitely not one simple Great English Railway!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. So, does this really mean that the new GBR will paint all the station and unlike now where the TOC used to go up to the column capitals and above that it was Network Rail? Will the region’s be aligned to the current Network Rail zones? I can see the bidders for the new contracts having a few difficulties with the union’s on cost savings and will they really bid for the risk of tiny margins? Too many asyet unanswered questions, but I’m sure it will all come out in the white wash!


  4. Your title is a very accurate description of the White Paper, I just hope that the implementation actually improves the railway.


  5. Each soundbite paragraph on its own sounds very encouraging, but when you try to fit the bits of the jigsaw its is not quite so clear what the finished picture will really be. It appears that GBR will set most of the fares, but then talks about the commercial flair of the concession holders, so how much will really change? As you mention, where you have a choice of operator on some routes, such as the West Coast Main Line you can either get somewhere quickly with Avanti, at a price, or take your time with LondonNorthWestern and save some money. What will be the “affordable” option for this? Conversely, will it remove the arbitrary split on somewhere such as London to Brighton where the price is governed by the colour of the logo on the side of the train, not the service provided. It also seems remarkably vague on open access operators, and where they will fit in. Who is going to decide if there is sufficient capacity on a line for them to be able to operate?

    The report highlights the extremes of difficulty with delay attribution – when is a partridge a partridge and what is a partridge anyway? however, it tells us that the concessionaires must operate to the highest standards so how are things going to be resolved when they go wrong?

    Much like the bus report its is full of warm words that have nasty icicles hiding underneath and no solid structure. Perhaps they hope that in the five years they are giving themselves to set things up people will have forgotten how things were before March 2020 and so be grateful for any crumbs that find their way of this table.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Delay attribution, which has its origins in British Rail days, is about responsibility for a delay incident – who manages it, who minimises its impact, who prevents it from happening again and again. It’s the commercial parts of track access contracts that have turned it into a financial merry go round of incentives and compensation and lazy soundbite writers who label it a “blame game”.


  7. The aims of it are good whether the implementation will be might be another matter. Great British Railways applies to al of Mainland UK ie . England, Wales and Scotland but it also talks of having Regional identification so maybe GBR Scotland for example

    All infrastructure comes under GBR with a few exception’s. Scheduling comes under GBR as does signalling so all failures will now be down to GBR with the exception of when a TOC is the cause of the failure although as I read it compensation wlll be from GBR who presumably then charge it back to the TOCC this ensures passengers have a single point to get compensation

    Operation of almost all rail stations will transfer to GBR. Ii is unclear as to whether this will apply in Scotland and Wales

    GBR talks of Regions but it does not state what these regions will be. It also talk of devolving investment responsibility with these regions
    as well as cooperating with passengers and local authorities etc in these regions

    It also talks of making journeys seamless between bus, rail , bike etc. It also talks of a £3B investment to revolutionize bus services outside of London with Rail stations increasingly becoming hubs It also talks of greater integration of tickets between bus. rail and light railways
    Something in my view that is long overdue. Whilst the technology to be able to buy a combined bus/rail ticket on a bus exists going i without causing undue delays to bus services might be another matter so I suspect it will largely have to be done on the Interment or using an app

    The question is who will do this. Local Councils do not have the expertise and are pretty useless at what bus support they do


  8. I enjoyed the bizarre comment about there being too many different types of trains on the network and that no bus company would every allow that in their fleet – really? And why are there so many types – a lot comes from political decisions: BR having to source trains from multiple manufacturers, franchise specifications, the cancellation of the large DMU order 10 years or so ago and subsequent cancellation of the replacement electrification scheme. Meanwhile the CAF and Hitachi sagas show that having a homogenous fleet also causes issues.


  9. I look forward to unified coupling arrangements for different types of train. It was all standardised under good old British Rail, but, since then, every train manufacturer and TOC has designed their own coupling, so that nothing is compatible any more. Not even the Electrostar units can be coupled up between fleets.
    I look forward to being able to buy tickets to anywhere in GBR from London Overground stations.
    And I look forward to still being able to buy a cheaper ticket, without pre-booking a seat, on trains that might not be the fastest.
    But, I’m probably going to be disappointed !

    Liked by 2 people

  10. There is no reason they could not be standard if GBR put it into the requirements. Having said that give the number of different loading gauges and the amount of technology o the trains you would need more than coupling standardizing

    Even if coupling were standardized I doubt you could couple different unit together and actually get them working. It would probably be fine for towing a broken down unit but not for passenger service


  11. Re. coupling flexibility: this is something that the old Southern Region were good at. I’m sure I read of a peak-hour service in which a 4-VEP from Southampton coupled up to a Class 33 + carriage set from Salisbury at Basingstoke nd continued eastwards. Things were fine if the Salisbury train arrived first but sometimes it didn’t, leaving the diesel “stranded” in the middle of the train, to the consternation of waiting passengers!


  12. The “too many different types of rolling stock” doesn’t quite get to the point, although there is some truth in it.

    Remember the days of the Modernisation Plan, when practically every man with a shed and a hammer was making a different train and they had huge numbers of different models being designed in the space of just a few years, most of which were only produced in small numbers … what we have had over the last 25 years has been a lot more coordinated than that, at least!

    One thing that absolutely should have been required as a matter of course is that all trains are capable of working in multiple with each other (obviously you can make exceptions for sets like the 345s, 700s, 745s and 800s that run as fixed-formation sets), which would reduce some of the problems around compatibility that we have now.

    But the bigger issue is the lack of a fleet strategy. And that isn’t down to how many different types of train there are on the network, but the fact that no-one has overall responsibility for procurement and allocation. So now we have the ridiculous situation where 365s are going off-lease with years of life left in them but no planned use, and 458s likewise, and other EMUs likely to follow suit when WM and GA have their full delivery of new stock – and at the same time, we’ve had Northern, West Midlands and TfW commissioning stupid numbers of new diesel-only units that ought to be scrapped not halfway through their lifespan with the decarbonisation strategy while we have a good number of 185s that will soon be going spare as well.

    And tied to that is that the latest move does nothing to sort resolve one of the biggest money leaks in the system, which is the private ownership of the rolling stock by Big Finance and the leasing costs that we have to pay for them.

    Liked by 1 person

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