Posted 23rd May 2024 | 8 Comments

Real railway reforms could start on 5 July

It is 09.00 on Friday 5 July 2024.

The decision has been taken by the people, and two large removal vans arrived in Downing Street an hour ago.

Rishi Sunak is expected to travel to the country house of Chequers in Buckinghamshire, which is customarily put at the temporary disposal of an outgoing Prime Minister.

Sir Keir Rodney Starmer is preparing to get into a car which will take him to Buckingham Palace within the hour, where the King, also according to custom, will ask him to form a government.

From that moment, the Labour leader will become Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury.

Meanwhile, newly-arrived officials in the Department for Transport, some of whom are a little bleary-eyed after sitting up late to watch the election results, are carrying out the instructions to be followed in the event of a Labour win.

Messages go out from the DfT to Network Rail, the Office of Rail and Road, the Rail Delivery Group and the Great British Railways Transition Team.

Each organisation is told that morning that they must start preparing for substantial changes to the railway industry. The DfT, Operator of Last Resort and Network Rail are being instructed to work closely together from now on by forming a partnership which is to be led by a new team at the temporary headquarters of the shadow Great British Railways, alongside Derby station. They must have a functioning organisation within six months – in other words, by January 2025.

Meanwhile, Parliamentary draughtsmen have been working on a new Railways Bill, which will be presented to the Commons in the first session of the new Parliament. 

The draft Railway Reform Bill drawn up by the previous government is now dead in the water: no public Bills, whether draft or substantive, survive a change of government, even though the Transport Select Committee had been conscientiously taking evidence about it from key railway industry figures in May. Whatever they said, as well as the text of the Bill itself, will now be placed in the box labelled ‘It Might Have Been’.

Labour’s new Bill will be different. Great British Railways will not be the ‘franchising authority’, because there will be no franchises to be awarded. It will not be a ‘guiding mind’, as recommended by Keith Williams in his Rail Review, but a ‘directing’ one.

Shares in several transport groups have been falling since the the Stock Exchange opened at 07.00 this morning, as it is now beyond doubt that the present National Rail passenger contracts in England will be terminated at the first available ‘break point’, and earlier than that if an operator ‘fails to deliver’.

In Scotland and Wales there are none to surrender: the devolved governments had already taken control of their railways while the Conservatives were still in office.

There will be no chance of continuing, because the train operators still in the private sector on election day are destined to be ‘folded in’ to Great British Railways. The process is intended to be inexpensive and relatively painless. Behind closed doors, even before Sir Keir has reached the palace, some transport group executives are discussing at hastily-called meetings whether it would be better to surrender the doomed contracts sooner rather than later, and be done with it.

Passenger open access offers one way for the private sector to stay on the rails, at least to some extent, and several transport groups have been industriously applying for new routes and paths over the past few months. Labour has said open access ‘will remain where it adds value and capacity to the rail network’. 

But the Office of Rail and Road has yet to pronounce its verdicts on any of the recent applications, and before that happens it will have received ‘an updated framework and guidance’ about open access from the new transport secretary. No one knows what form that ‘guidance’ will take.

Reader Comments:

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

  • Joel, London

    It is important to remember that any bringing of rail back into public ownership (or whichever description is preferred) will not be the same as the earlier nationalised railway. Technologies have moved on, and while there are still unresolved issues, such a change must be based on the real necessities for passengers, freight and sadly political bias. We need a fifty year infrastructure, maintenance and development programme, reviewed five-yearly with guaranteed investment and central support. And intelligent cost-benefit analysis, not the myopic system we have now. Dreams start here...

  • david C smith, Bletchley

    One thing that emerges here is the negative tmpact that relatively short term contracts / franchise agreements have on investment . One thing the railway industry needs is a stable , long term structure that is not dependant on political ideology.
    [Assuming that Labour wins, as the polls say it will, there will be no contracts (or franchises) on the passenger railway for much longer.--Ed.]

  • John B, London

    Modernisation failed in 1955 because BR panic bought batches of untested diesel prototypes as it couldn't afford widescale electrification. It also bet the farm on automated marshalling yards when the future was in MGR services. Unlike most other European countries, Britain didn't invest its Marshall funds into rebuilding the shattered network, and it was run on a shoestring basis for years.

    Beeching was the villain as he chopped indiscriminatorily in the belief that rail travel was going the way of the canals. There's a clip somewhere where he regrets not closing the ECML north of Berwick. No regard was given to the possibility of mothballing key inter-urban routes and the solum was sold off at a pittance, causing connectivity issues which persist to this day. Castle could have, perhaps should have, done more, but the die was cast: road transport was on the rise, and rail transport was the past. These were the assumptions.

  • ChrisJones-Bridger, Buckley

    Come the 5th July the railway will still be there with an agreed budget. It would appear that irrespective of the outcome of the election there is some agreement between the main parties that GBR will form a major part in the structure of the industry going forward. The challenge will be ensuring that the resulting organisation dismantles the current costly dysfunctional matrix which absorbs a disproportional amount of cash on needless bureaucracy.

    Then again history should inform us that the railway has all too often been it's worst enemy. Just look at the results of the at the time generous settlement in the 1955 modernisation plan. Is it any wonder that questions were asked given the dubious investments made? Looking at the cold facts of the early 1960's is it really right to cast Beeching solely as the villain? Line closures were nothing new and had been going on from the 1930's as loss making minor or marginal routes were axed. The great majority of the lines slated for closure in Beeching's report would have gone given the modal shift to road from the 1950's, he only accelerated the inevitable. Let it not be forgotten he championed Intercity, company block freight trains, Freightliner and the MGR workings developed in the 1960's, services that today remain integral to the heart of the commercial railway.

    I think it wrong of a previous contributor the to cast Barbera Castle as a villain. Let it be recalled that as mister of Transport she steered the 1968 Transport Act to the statute book. This legislated for the social railway and formalised the funding for the subsidised railway that even today is the foundation to the support mechanism the industry enjoys. It was Sir Peter Parker when BRB chairman who endeavoured to characterise this as a contractual relationship to neutralise the stigma that subsidy unfortunately implies.

    I believe your contributor characterising TfW as a disaster is being unfair. This is an operator undergoing a complete makeover having inherited an operation that under previous franchised operators that had been expected to run on a no growth basis with an ageing & limited rolling stock fleet. The safety related withdrawal of the 175 fleet during early 2023 certainly led to a collapse in performance but irrespective of public or private ownership drafting in replacement equipment within the current structure isn't as easy as days gone by. For comparison just look at the challenge LNW had sourcing replacement stock for Bletchley to Bedford after Vivarail collapsed.
    It is also worth noting how some of TfW's ambitions to enhance North Wales coast and Marches Line services have had to be scaled back due to the low priority NR gives to modernising the infrastructure on these routes. While TfL now has ownership of the Core Valley Infrastructure it is still beholden to the deaf ears of Whitehall when funding NR routes.

  • H.Gillies-Smith, South Milford

    Indeed Mr Editor we're on the 'same page' re your comments.

  • david C smith, Bletchley

    At least there appears to be some degree of consensus from the letters above. I would join this myself ; nationalisation , as exemplified by the post - war version was not a success story, with the State proving to be more of a millstone around the railway's neck than a useful agency. Public ownership, though can take different forms. Some form of it will be needed to give a coherent management of the captive market natural monopolies ( commuter for example ) . I hope such structures would give efficient answerability and facilitate longer term thinking.

    Needless to say, not all rail activity is by nature monopolistic ; there are "sectors"where competition between operators is quite feasible, which ought to be in a "free enterprise" environment ( intercity , freight , ROSCOs in particular).

    Infrastructure is also an obvious prime candidate for public ownership . The modern railway needs to run as "horses for courses" , rather than a " one size fits all"monolith.

  • H. Gillies-Smith, South Milford

    How right you are King Arthur. I worked through Harold Wilson's government cancelling electrification from Weaver Junction-Glasgow only for it having to be done 10 years later at much increased cost. Then the selling off of assets i.e. property, at any cost, it seemed, which had it been leased, particularly the prime sites in London, would have brought income in for the railways to finance themselves. Everybody blames Beeching but Barbara Castle was really the culprit.
    [Indeed so. Mrs Castle and other ministers, including those in the Treasury. But British Rail tends to be blamed for it all in hindsight. It wasn't nationalisation as such but tight restrictions on investment which pushed the railway into decline, and many people saw this as inevitable. Since the 1990s nearly all railway investment has come from the public purse, either directly or by guaranteeing Network Rail's borrowing. The franchises were too brief for them to justify much capital spending.--Ed.]

  • king arthur, buckley

    This reads a bit like a party political broadcast for the Labour Party? The Conservatives have never been supportive of the railway but Labour's record is scarcely better. The disaster engulfing the nationalised railway in Wales should be evidence enough that public ownership does not deliver an Island of Sodor fairyland that many commentators would have us believe. I'm sure most passengers would not welcome a return of the filthy, old trains and dirty and dilapidated stations that British Rail offered (that's if you're lucky and they don't close your line completely).
    [This is an accurate summary of what Labour says it will do if elected. There is no endorsement or otherwise from Railnews. As the introduction says: if the polls are right. There is nothing to be usefully added about Conservative intentions, because we have already reported these in detail and if they won the election it would be the status quo.--Ed.]