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Was Great British Railways ever the answer to the UK’s transport woes?

The travel chaos we see today is the result of a complete lack of vision and planning.

By Johnbosco Nwogbo

The UK has had three prime ministers in the space of four months. At a time when the public needs clarity on government policy – in the face of an escalating cost of living and the climate crisis – we’ve been left in the dark on a number of policy fronts.

While most of the focus has been on the energy crisis, huge NHS waiting lists and the economy, public transport is also in urgent need of attention. Our railway has almost come to a halt – yes, on strike days, when workers take action against an enforced decline in their pay and conditions – but also on regular days, because of a chaotic network of private rail operators who simply cannot run the trains on time.

This isn’t just the result of the pandemic slowing our railway system down. The chaos we see today is the result of a complete lack of vision and planning for rail. It is not fit for the future and is unable to provide a reliable, green mode of transport that people can afford.

The Williams Rail Review, which began in September 2018 and concluded in May 2021, led to the announcement of Great British Railways (GBR) in the “Plan for Rail” white paper. This was touted as a sweeping set of reforms, the most ambitious plan for our railways seen in decades.

The premise of these reforms was that the problems in the system, crystallised for many by the 2018 timetable debacle, were down to fragmentation. Too many chefs in the kitchen. And worse, all those chefs were motivated by their profit-driven interest to pull in their own direction.

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Even as a set of reforms aiming to merely plug the problems identified by the Williams Review, GBR fell far short of what was required. The plans left the private train operators (TOCs) and the Rolling Stock Companies (who actually own the trains, also called Roscos) still very much in charge. Implementing these policies would not have reduced the number of chefs in the kitchen. It would simply have given the government a bit more control over their behaviour.

The reforms did have some positives. They proposed greater control of the rail system for a new public body, GBR – including over the crucial areas of timetabling and ticketing. On an incremental basis, they represent a minuscule step towards the railway system we need and that the public expects – one that works for people and not for profit.

No one knows the fate of these GBR reforms, or what kind of future we can expect for the railways in general. Following the collapse of Boris Johnson’s government and Grant Shapps’s removal from the Department for Transport, the now also former transport secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan announced that the legislation needed to put GBR on the statute books will not be tabled this side of a general election. This was quite a shock to the six local authorities who were in the middle of competing to host GBR’s new headquarters in their city or town. It prompts the question: does anyone know what’s going on?

[See also: Mick Lynch: there’s a “corrupt” relationship between the government and train operators]

A DfT spokesperson said: “We remain committed to tackling the challenges set out in the Plan for Rail and implementing the modernisation needed to transform the industry so it’s sustainable for the future.”

It is worth reiterating that although Great British Railways would have represented some progress, and may perhaps have improved the overall performance of our railways to a degree, it did not present a real solution to the crisis that led to its conception. Our railways are failing us because for decades we’ve had a system run for profit rather than for passengers. In the years leading up to the pandemic, private rail companies (TOCs and Roscos) made a billion pounds per year in profits on average. This is money that could instead go to cutting rail fares for passengers by 18 per cent or building 100 miles of rail track.

For far too long, the system has allowed private rail operators to orient the services they provide around what is best for their short-term profit margins. This simply does not work for rail users or workers.

With passenger numbers at their highest in our railway’s history just before the pandemic hit, private rail operators were able to maintain the illusion that they were doing a good job (but low passenger satisfaction numbers show this was never felt by the public). And as conditions tightened during the pandemic, it was unsurprising the system buckled.

In a properly managed railway, the pandemic should have led to the removal of private operators from the system altogether, with it being taken fully into public ownership. It was somewhat surprising this did not happen given the government and its Welsh and Scottish counterparts have shown themselves willing to take on rail franchises – such as East Coast rail, Northern rail, Southeastern, Wales & Border and ScotRail – when their private operators run aground. But instead, we saw the government decide to only take very limited control of the companies’ behaviour while safeguarding their profits.

Our railway should work for us, and not for the profits of a select few. Switzerland has the best railway service in Europe, and it is no surprise why: it is run entirely in public ownership. If we did the same with our railways, we could cut fares, modernise and improve the service (yes, including by paying the staff better and improving their conditions), and use our railway system and the surrounding infrastructure as a lever to tackle the climate crisis.

The short-termism at the heart of government is not just making our railways difficult to improve, it is actively obstructing the changes that are needed. It’s time for common sense and market ideology to be put to one side – which means it’s time for public ownership of the railway.

[See also: The Policy Ask with Martin Tugwell: “Free public transport could deliver economic, environmental and social benefits”]

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