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Government commits to Great British Railways as key element of rail reform

The Transport Secretary Mark Harper has outlined the government’s plans to modernise the rail industry, vowing to instil a ‘customer first culture’ and to deliver rail reform, including the establishment of Great British Railways (GBR).

Giving this year’s George Bradshaw Address, Mr Harper acknowledged frustrations within the rail industry, and among passengers, but said his priority was to move ‘from the words to action’ to achieve fundamental reform and deliver the government’s Plan for Rail.

He said the whole government were ‘pressing go on rail reform’: to put customers first; to realise the benefits of GBR; and to help enhance the role of the private sector. He also stated the need to create a customer-focused and joined-up railway flexible enough to build back from the pandemic.

GBR

Mr Harper committed to the establishment of GBR, saying: “The industry has long called for a guiding mind to coordinate the network so GBR will be responsible for track and train, as well as revenue and cost.”

He also stated that:

  • The winner of the GBR HQ competition will be revealed before Easter;
  • The government will respond to the consultation on GBR’s legislative powers by the summer;
  • The GBR Transition Team are developing the guiding long-term strategy for rail (which was informed by a consultation that Community Rail Network and some community rail partnerships/groups fed into), which is set to be published later this year to provide strategic direction to the sector.

Mr Harper said GBR would be ‘wholeheartedly customer-focused’, and would serve as the single point of accountability for the performance of the railway. It was described as an arm’s length body ensuring a balanced approach to both infrastructure and operations, with five regional GBR divisions working with rail industry partners and operators and regional bodies such as the Greater Manchester and the West Midlands Combined Authorities.

While Mr Harper emphasised the importance of government not getting involved in the operational decision-making of running the railways, he did acknowledge that government oversight was needed, ‘especially to support those passenger services that don’t turn a profit, yet still play an important economic and social role.’

Customers

Mr Harper emphasised the need for a customer first culture within the industry, highlighting the need for reliable services, comfortable journeys, and accessible stations. He stated that the main passenger concern was around ticketing, and confirmed that:

  • Pay-As-You-Go ticketing will be extended, with 52 stations across the south-east set to be completed this year including on Chiltern, London Northwestern, and C2C services;
  • LNER’s single leg pricing trial will be extended to other parts of the LNER network from the spring, with the results then considered before potentially extending this more widely;
  • Reforms will mean that flexible single fares were always half the cost of the equivalent return, giving passengers more flexibility and better value;

For the freight sector, Mr Harper outlined the creation of a dedicated Strategic Freight Unit tasked with realising rail freight’s untapped potential for green growth.

Private sector

Mr Harper said he wanted the private sector to ‘play its most important role in our railways yet,’ to reinvigorate the sector, drive innovation, and attract more customers to the railway. He said this would be done in partnership with GBR, which will help to set appropriate commercial conditions.

He said that the current National Rail Contracts, put in place to steer the industry through the pandemic, will be phased out and replaced by new Passenger Service Contracts, that will balance performance incentives with simple, commercially driven targets. We have previously summarised these contracts, and their implications for community rail, here.

Mr Harper also outlined plans to:

  • Expand commercial opportunities around land and property near stations;
  • Support more open access services where it benefits passengers and taxpayers, making best use of spare capacity on the network;
  • Open up railway data and systems, whilst lowering barriers to entry for the industry.

Community Rail Network will continue to work closely with the GBR Transition Team, as well as government and industry colleagues, to ensure community rail is recognised and supported, and its insights utilised through the process of rail transition and transformation, and opportunities seized to further empower the movement.

We will provide further updates on rail reform when appropriate. In the meantime, you can speak to your usual contact should you have any queries. You can also read about our input into the rail transformation process in this briefing from September 2022.

Click here to read the full transcript of the address.