Railways are one of Britain’s greatest contributions to human progress. They changed this land forever, cutting journeys from days to hours, feeding the growing centres of the Industrial Revolution and creating towns and suburbs from scratch.
We eulogise and romanticise them, harking back to the golden era of steam, imagining lazy journeys on bucolic branch lines or regaling our children with tales of plucky humanised locomotives. But our relationship with this great invention is ambiguous. In the modern world travelling by railway can be a satisfying experience, but it can also be a source of frustration because of ticket complexity and overcrowding, and, of course, delay.
A century ago next month, the Railways Act received royal assent. It heralded major consolidation, merging most of the country’s 120 railway companies into the “Big Four”: Great Western Railway (GWR), London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS), London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), and Southern Railway. The 1921 act rejected nationalisation but sought to build on the economies of scale witnessed in the First World War, when railways were placed under state control.
Complete consolidation and full nationalisation came in 1948 with the creation of British Railways. The 1960s would see the network slashed as Dr Beeching wielded his axe, recommending the despatch of 5,000 miles of track and almost 2,400 stations. And then, from 1994, this reduced network was divided up again under privatisation, some two dozen franchises being awarded to train operators who had bid for them. Infrastructure, meanwhile, was hived off into Railtrack.
This fragmentation of the rail network was by no means a failure. The past quarter of a century has seen the number of passengers rise to its highest level since the 1920s. In 2018-2019, before Covid curtailed mass travel, some 1.8 billion journeys were undertaken. Private investment also resulted in the widespread introduction of new rolling stock, and network infrastructure has been substantially upgraded, with the result that railways in the UK are among the most popular and safe in Europe.
But full fat-privatisation has clearly turned out to be a flawed model – just as full-fat nationalisation was. That is why we created Great British Railways (GBR).
The chaotic timetable changes three years ago showed all too clearly that the old ways were not working. Years of fragmentation, confusion and unnecessary complexity have seen passengers failed time and again.
Simply buying a ticket can be an ordeal. Who has not stood on a concourse worrying that they may have bought the wrong ticket from the wrong train operator and that a fine in the form of a full-price single ticket is awaiting them after boarding? And why are we still buying paper tickets anyway, when the rest of the world has moved to mobile phone purchase, contactless and pay-as-you-go?
And don’t ask about the madness that had train operators billing each other for the knock-on effects of delays. A whole bureaucracy was created to apportion blame under the franchise system, dealing with such Alice-in-Wonderland enquiries as deciding on the size of the bird that had caused a delay by colliding with a service. Yes, really.
Enough of this nonsense. We have got to bring the railway kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Perhaps to the disappointment of some New Statesman readers this government – currently engaged in the biggest rail infrastructure upgrade in memory – is not in favour of a return to a single, monolithic state enterprise via nationalisation. Because we all know what will happen: the slow withering of standards, innovation and customer-responsiveness; the gradual re-emergence of a railway that runs not for passengers but for itself.
We need something in between nationalisation and unfettered franchising, a system that incorporates the best aspects of both – a strong national umbrella organisation that can control the timetable, consolidate ticketing under one banner and police private companies operating not as franchises but as management companies, in much the same way that London Overground is overseen and branded by Transport for London but operated by a private company under a concession contract. Do a good job – run clean, comfortable trains on time and innovate to improve the “passenger experience” – and you’ll keep your contract. Fail and it’s goodbye. GBR will provide the continual high standards across the board that the franchise system lacked.
The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail – the centrepiece of which is the creation of GBR – marks a new era for our railways. It is intended to be flexible, allowing some concession holders more freedom if that works – possibly on intercity routes – while keeping others on a tighter leash.
There will be no doubt as to who is in charge, who is accountable. GBR will integrate the railways, own the infrastructure, collect fare revenue, plan the network and set most fares and timetables. There will be one clear brand for our trains, and a GBR website selling tickets across the network. And a single compensation system in England when trains are late or cancelled. Renationalisation? No. Simplification? Yes.
We are starting with flexible season tickets. Now on sale and ready to use, for homeworkers and part-time commuters, they mean potential savings of hundreds of pounds. In all cases a flexible season ticket will offer a minimum 20 per cent discount on an equivalent monthly season ticket.
There will be real-time information on seat reservations and services, and open data will link trains with buses and bikes for seamless journeys.
The private sector has played a central role in improving our railways and we don’t want to let go of that know-how. But there will also be a stronger voice for mayors and council leaders to ensure services and stations meet local needs.
We’ll deliver a fully costed environment plan setting out ambitious proposals to make our trains cleaner and greener. A full accessibility audit will make sure our upgraded stations and services are open to everyone. And for the first time, a long-term strategy will identify priorities for the whole rail network over the next 30 years.
Covid has seen the government take unprecedented action to protect railway services and jobs. It has posed serious challenges, with train use still far below pre-pandemic levels. Our strategy re-emphasises our commitment to growing not shrinking the rail network. That network is being transformed with tens of billions of pounds of investment in electrification, track upgrades and new and re-opened lines (the latter under our popular Beeching reversals).
I have no doubt that in the happier times we will return in force to the railways. We need them and retain a great affection for them. And we need to meet in 3D not 2D.
Do these reforms offer a practical compromise based on long experience? Yes. There’s nothing wrong with pragmatic compromise. Ideology belongs to armchair warriors. I want our railways to work for people who rely on them every day, and deserve a reliable, efficient service. They come first.
A version of this article will appear in the forthcoming Spotlight issue on greener transport after COVID – on the newsstands Friday, 16 July.
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