Posted 26th April 2024 | No Comments

Analysis: GBR is there a common ground?

Labour’s detailed proposals for railway reform are ambitious (writes Sim Harris).

They take the plans set out in Keith Williams’ Rail Review and build on them, with the result that a new railway industry emerges.

This will still be a hybrid industry, financially speaking, although it will hardly deserve the label ‘privatised’ any longer.

In a nutshell, if Labour gains power, the infrastructure and core passenger services (those operated by the former franchises) will be state-owned, and administered by ‘Great British Railways’.

During the first five-year term of a Labour Government the core periods of the existing (passenger) contracts will have expired, and they can then be ‘folded in’ to GBR.

Current National Rail Contracts are heavyweight documents, following in the footsteps of franchise agreements, and they would not have been cheap. The main contract for East Midlands Railway alone runs to 527 pages, or roughly 263,000 words. There are ten such contracts in force (excluding those operators which have already been nationalised), which means the private sector passenger railway, not including open access, needs around two and a half million words to describe it to the lawyers’ satisfaction. Abolition of such documents will go some way towards the £2 billion-plus which Labour says will be saved as the result of its railway reforms.

Railfreight will continue to be carried in the main by private operators, with the single exception of Direct Rail Services, which has been nationalised since it was set up in 1995 and is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

Open access passenger services are also to be allowed to continue, but capacity limits on principal routes may eventually impose a natural barrier to their further expansion unless the state-owned services are trimmed.

Third party ticket retailers are also set to survive, but much will depend on the attractivemess and ease of the website which GBR is apparently going to create.

At the moment, some of the 19 third-party retailers have evolved far better ‘purchasing experiences’ than the mess which is the present National Rail portal. Although recently redesigned, it is still the website from hell, and has also become keen to make enquirers choose specific trains before they are allowed to know the fares, even in the case of those such as off-peak returns, which are the same price all the time outside peak periods and do not require any form of advance booking.

The National Rail website may indeed have contributed to the popularity of third party retailers, simply because their websites are superior, although seven of those retailers were rebuked at the end of last year by the ORR for ‘drip pricing’, which is when an online seller does not make the full price clear at the start of a transaction. It should be added that all seven have promised to do better.

A number of well-known railway organisations are set to be absorbed by GBR, including the Rail Delivery Group and (of course) Network Rail, while a new Passenger Standards Authority will replace Transport Focus (although not, apparently, London TravelWatch) and the Rail Ombudsman, and also take on some of the functions of the ORR.

Well-known names which will continue in the new world include BTP, HMRI, ROSCOs, the RAIB and (probably) the RSSB, although this last would be reviewed, ‘to ensure it is able to fulfil a similar role within the new model’.

Labour’s document itself might have gained from a closer review. It refers (on page 20) to a mythical body called the Office of Road and Rail, while the final photograph (on page 25) is a fine image of a train apparently destined for, er, Portrush. In reality, County Antrim, like the rest of Northern Ireland, is neither in Britain nor within the scope of the proposed Great British Railways.

One claim received in the Railnews inbox after Labour’s document had been published came from an ‘expert’ academic commentator, who alleged: ‘There is common ground about the creation of a guiding mind covering track and train’.

Oh no, there isn’t. The phrase ‘guiding mind’ is not used once by Labour. However, its document does refer (eight times) to GBR being the ‘directing mind’. There is a difference in meaning here, since ‘to guide’ implies advice or assistance, while ‘to direct’ is more like an instruction – as in ‘directive’.

This difference could be important if tomorrow’s railway takes shape as Labour would like to see it.

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