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Why the one new feature of Grant Shapps’s rail proposals is also the most important

The only difference between these proposals and plans we’ve seen before is that the Secretary of State has put his name on them. Here’s why that matters. 

By Stephen Bush

There is not much that is new in the government’s new review of British rail provision. This isn’t the same thing as saying that the conclusions are unwelcome or wrong: they’re pretty much exactly what any transport wonk, in any party, who has sat down to discuss the problems with the British railways, would recommend. They would disagree on what exact role the private sector should play, but the scope of these reforms falls very much slap bang in the middle of the consensus in terms of the necessary changes to rail transport.

If implemented, they would mean rail provision in England would essentially operate under the same model as the London Overground: private companies provide the actual service, but fares, procurement of rolling stock and service levels are all set by the government. This has been the aim of pretty much every transport proposal and the suggestion put forward by every serious review, overview and analysis commissioned by the Department for Transport or by think tanks for the past decade.

The only significant change is also the most important one, however: the secretary of state, Grant Shapps, has put his name on the review, giving it the slightly unwieldy name of the “Williams-Shapps plan for rail”. That may sound trivial, but one recurrent problem is that often when these proposals emerge, they’re widely welcomed but difficult to deliver, and because they lack proper buy-in at a ministerial level, they never actually happen.

The big hope with this set of proposals is that having a committed Secretary of State means that these proposals actually happen. The fear, of course, is that Shapps will face the same fate as so many other Secretaries of State who have been committed to their brief and department under so many governments: being reshuffled out into another job for which he has less enthusiasm, and being replaced by a less committed minister.

But there is good reason to think it may be different this time. Transport Secretary was the job Shapps craved in 2019, and it is also one of the few parts of government policy on which Boris Johnson has fairly developed and committed views. A much-needed transformation of Britain’s railways might, in fact, be under way.

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