Time running out for Conservatives’ rail reforms

The Great British Railways Transition Team (GBRTT) grinds slowly on, with little discernible output, despite allegedly three hundred people beavering away. The recruitment section of the GBRTT website says:

“We move with pace. This will be exciting and varied work. You will need to be agile in your thinking and willing to take calculated risks.

We are problem solvers. You will bring both your knowledge and your common sense to complex challenges. You will find simple and innovative solutions.

We are influencers. You will make important decisions, and you will take people with you.”

In reality, while I’m sure they are all working hard, I suspect without realising it they have fallen into the trap of the worst bureaucracies, with the great majority of the time spent focussed inwards. 

This Spring, GBRTT have started issuing “discussion papers” around changes to the industry’s contractual structure, under the slightly pompous heading “Commission to deliver a simpler and more integrated railway”. These are full of motherhood-and-apple-pie, starting with the Williams-Shapps analysis of fragmentation; they’re certainly not exciting to read. 

Discussion paper 1.1 deals with “Planning the use of the railway”. The recommendations seem to boil down to a requirement for GBR to develop a forward plan of timetable changes, driven by its longer term industry planning activity. There’s also a footnote, flagging that there is to be a duty on the Regulator “to facilitate the furtherance of GBR’s policies on access and the use of the railway”. Two years after Williams-Shapps was published, and five years after the Williams Review was set up, that’s about it – there are for example no specific proposals for changes to the Access Condition which covers the timetable process. At this rate of progress, it will probably be two to three years before there any changes to the contractual structure.

There are also papers covering the contractual framework for stations and depots, proposing a single operational team bringing together all station or depot management activities, and a single party taking responsibility for asset management. However, in each case no assumption is made on who that party will be, as “the operational model for stations and depots is still under development”. 

Beyond these obscure discussion papers, there is a whole range of major issues on which there is no public evidence of real progress. For example, what is the form of the new Passenger Service Contracts (PSCs), and how will the much-lauded private sector operators be incentivised to deliver real improvements to operational performance and customer care? What is the governance structure to enable key stakeholders such as County Councils and Metro Mayors to influence the specification for the new PSCs and hold them accountable for their performance? Will funding for regional franchises be devolved to the regions? How will the market be incentivised to bid for the PSCs in the first place? I know that at least one existing franchisee is unlikely to bid if the contracts are to be let on low margins with no significant upside, as the bidding process is likely to continue to be demanding, with only limited financial rewards and no certainty of success. 

In the midst of all this, Minsters are enthusiastically talking up the prospects for open access operators. It’s certainly possible to see how the existing open access operators on the East Coast Main Line can be absorbed into GBR’s future timetable strategies, but how would open access aspirations for, say, the West Coast Main Line be taken into account in GBR’s future planning?

There is a total lack of urgency. No-one appears to be holding GBRTT’s feet to the fire to deliver clear outcomes to a demanding timescale, and the present Government is running out of time. It’s to be hoped that Labour are developing a coherent, determined strategy to take the rail industry forward in a way which delivers value for money, excellence for passengers and ensures the industry is able to achieve its full potential contribution to delivering Net Zero.

It had seemed that the damaging, long running industrial relations crisis might have finally come to an end, without a clear-cut win on either side. The trade unions seemed to be prepared to settle for pay rises below the current level of inflation – a key concern for the Government – although the productivity benefits appeared murky at best, which was probably in both sides’ interest. Some of the original productivity demands, such as the closure of ticket offices, could always have been taken forward through local consultation in any case. It’s certainly true that the proportion of tickets sold across the counter at stations has been dropping very fast, but I believe that it’s important that there is still a staff presence at medium and large stations, for reassurance, security and customer assistance.

However, the industry is now faced with more strike days. This is desperately sad, especially as train performance has generally been improving, albeit with some dreadful exceptions in recent months. One of the big culprits, Avanti West Coast, has at long last largely got its act together. As I write this, Avanti are showing four cancellations today, as a result of late running inbound services; last Autumn, the smart new departure indicators at Euston were often a sea of red, but now the services generally run and passenger confidence is returning. Revenue will be returning too, not only because passengers will be prepared to use the trains again, but also because it’s no longer possible to claim a full refund on so many journeys! 

Northern has improved too; the remaining real sinner now is TransPennine Express (TPE). There are still far too many cancellations, and TPE faces the threat of termination of its operating contract at the end of May. At one level, it’s possible to sympathise with the company; it has had particularly torrid industrial relations problems which are at the root of its dreadful performance. But stepping back from this, these essentially represent a fundamental failure of management, and the contract should be terminated, with the Government-owned Directly Operated Railways taking over, as has already happened with Northern and LNER, arguably the best managed long distance company. 

Many conservative politicians have an instinctive revulsion to nationalisation – but managerial competence is the real issue, not ownership. TPE is the railway equivalent of Admiral Byng, who in 1757 was court martialled and shot for. “failing to do his utmost”, as Voltaire later wrote “pour encourager les autres”.


Photo credit: Paul Bigland.

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