Posted 22nd February 2024 | 1 Comment

Rail Reform Bill: where do we go now?

Governments usually behave as if they will be in power indefinitely, which may explain why a ‘draft’ Rail Reform Bill has been published.

Bills receive three ‘Readings’ in the Commons: the first is a formality, and the second is the opportunity for a full debate. If the Bill passes this hurdle it goes to ‘committee stage’, in which a group of MPs can take outside evidence and propose amendments.

At the end there is a third reading, after more debate, and then the Bill goes to the Lords, where the process is repeated before the Bill, possibly amended, returns to the Commons one last time.

Finally, if all is well the Bill receives Royal Assent and becomes law.

In other words, a Bill is usually taken apart under a strong light, although if time runs out there can be a ‘guillotine motion’, which is designed to save time and, bluntly, cut the cackle.

On this occasion, however, the Government thinks that the Bill needs ‘pre-legislative scrutiny’, which accounts for its draft status. After due consideration, it would have to start at the beginning, with a First Reading.

Naturally, we do not know the result of the next election. At the moment, it is being reported that the Conservatives are set to lose. If that happens, this Bill will be lost with them.

Labour has said clearly that it intends to put the passenger railway back into public ownership, and the simplest (and cheapest) way to do that is to let the present contracts run to their expiry dates.

Does this draft Bill tell us much about the Government’s railway reforms?

It is a short Bill, just 32 pages. It confirms that there would be a Great British Railways, which would take over the awarding and management of passenger contracts from the transport secretary. It calls these contracts ‘franchises’, which is a word we haven’t seen for a while, but says nothing about the form these franchises will take.

In particular, there is no indication of the degree of commercial risk operators will be expected to tolerate. We remember how a number of the first-generation franchises fell off the rails because their losses became too great, ranging from Connex South Eastern in the early days, through GNER (Mk2) and National Express East Coast, to Virgin Trains East Coast.

It is also a matter of record that the market was becoming cool towards rail franchising, and this was demonstrated by a noticeable shortage of bidders after 2012, when the Intercity West Coast competition had to be cancelled because the Department for Transport had got its sums wrong.

More recently, the DfT fell out, apparently irreversibly, with Stagecoach and Virgin in a dispute over their responsibility for railway pensions. These days Virgin sells tickets for other peoples’ trains, while the only railed vehicles still run by Stagecoach are Sheffield trams (until March, when the Stagecoach contract ends).

Reassuring the market is going to be quite a task, once the present system of collecting the operators’ revenue and paying their costs comes to an end. If it does not, the status of the private sector will be reduced more or less to consultants, who – it may be hoped – will come up with some good ideas from time to time. On the other hand, if they do not benefit from introducing innovations, why should they bother?

Even so, there is still some enthusiasm in the the private sector. One insider remarked recently that his managing director is tired of the DfT, and ‘wants his train set back’.

We do know that this Bill keeps Network Rail and converts it into GBR by giving it extra responsibilities, but apart from that most of the details have yet to be revealed.

It is now up to the electors. They will decide in due course what tomorrow’s train set will be like. 

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • Chris Jones-Bridger, Buckley Flintshire

    Best to view the draft bill as the charade it really is from a tired administration giving the impression that it is doing something without actually achieving anything other than to prolong the forever process of consultation at great expense without actually getting anywhere.

    As you note it is the electors who will decide who forms the next government and the policy that will shape the train set. However when the election arrives I find it highly unlikely that rail policy will figure highly in the manifestoes being presented to the electorate.

    Irrespective of who forms the next government the challenge remains of unravelling the mess of the last 30 years that has loaded the rail organisational matrix with too much complexity and as a consequence excess cost. This will require challenging many vested interests who have an incentive to retain the current contractual boundaries as where such boundaries exist there is always a margin to be made & all too often cash from fare revenue & support payments that fails to add value to the rail customers experience.