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21 May 2021updated 24 May 2021 11:36am

Why the stupidly named Great British Railways plan actually makes some sense

It won’t magically fix all the problems with the rail network, but it might work better than the current, fragmented mess.

By Jonn Elledge

The first thing to say about the Williams-Shapps plan to reform Britain’s rail network is that the name the government has chosen for its new arms-length body is really, really embarrassing. “Great British Railways” (GBR)? Seriously? Grant Shapps might as well have named it “Completely Bloody Brilliant Trains”, or the “My Dad’s Bigger Than Your Dad Regional Rail Network”.

“But no!” tedious people with flags in their profiles have been saying to me since I tweeted a statement to that effect early on Thursday morning, “This island is actually called Great Britain, yeah? So really it’s just a simple geographic description and it is you, lefty columnist, who have shown your true colours here.” Nonsense, I reply – partly because devolution means that GBR will be a bigger deal in England than in Scotland or Wales, but mostly because the common adjectival form of “Great Britain” has definitely never been “Great British”.

There are two reasons why the government hasn’t called the new body British Railways. One is that British Rail is still – however unfairly – a name associated with delays, decay and slightly stale sandwiches. The other is that this government was slapping the words “Britain is Great” on things like trade policy even before Brexit, and clearly just thinks it’s a very clever and patriotic thing to do.

Talking of names, the Williams-Shapps review was just the Williams review after Keith Williams, the businessman originally commissioned to write the review, until a couple of months ago. Hmm.

That’s enough about the branding, what about the policy? Well, the first thing to say is that, despite the name, this is not the return of nationalisation. True, Network Rail, the body GBR will replace, mainly manages the infrastructure; GBR will also plan the train services, manage fares and ticketing, let contracts, and so on. It will, in short, plan the network, rather than merely the tracks. But the trains will still be run by companies rather than the British state – private, not public. What is changing is the system of contracts under which they do so.

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Under the franchise system in place since the 1990s, train operating companies (or TOCs, as they’re cheerily known) bid for the right to run trains on particular parts of the network. The theory was that competition for those contracts would maximise the revenues on offer to the taxpayer; then, having paid for the right to run the trains, TOCs would have an incentive to attract more passengers while cutting costs so that they could make more profit.

Passenger numbers have indeed steadily increased (or at least did, until Covid-19 got in the way). But TOCs soon found there was limited room for manoeuvre in terms of their finances: you can’t run more trains than the network and its signalling system can handle; cut too many costs and things break or staff strike. There are individual companies, like Chiltern Railways, that have invested to increase the capacity on their bit of the network and generally make things better. Mostly, though, it’s been obvious how much money there was to be made from running any particular piece of the British rail network, and competition for franchises has collapsed.

More than that, individual train operators have sometimes collapsed, too. When they did, national or devolved governments stepped in to run trains themselves, thus making it clear that the whole idea of forcing private companies to take the financial risk was a fiction. The government can never, in practice, allow a train service to simply stop: the risk will always be with the state.

So the new system will do away with franchising altogether. GBR will design service patterns, and receive the fare revenue, too. The private sector’s role will be limited to operating the trains in exchange for a fee.

This system, using management contracts rather than franchises, is already used on London Overground and Merseyrail, and has worked pretty well. It makes sense: the same people who manage the infrastructure will plan the network and take the financial risk.

So, despite its name, there are good reasons to think that Great British Railways will work better than the current, fragmented mess. Alas, it won’t – can’t – magically fix all the problems with the rail network. The reason fares are sometimes so ludicrously high is that the network uses them to manage demand: slash them, and you’d increase overcrowding, too. The only way around that is to increase the network’s capacity, by modernising signalling, building new tracks and extending platforms so you can run longer trains, and, most of all, building HS2, so that local trains no longer share tracks with intercity ones.

Doing those things will take hefty investment over a period of years. And it’s not guaranteed – no matter who runs the trains.