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24 MAY 2021

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Article from BTNews 24 MAY 2021

COMMENT: BRITISH RAIL “A privatisation too far”

The quote is of Margaret Thatcher:

"The last 30 years have proved her right." Andrew Sharp.

BTN's railway expert, for many years Director-General of the International Air Rail Organisation, comments on the Williams report.


John Major oversaw privatisation in the 1990s.

Since then there has been a stream of changes to the system. Requirements for potential franchisees have changed with almost every franchising round. Sometimes bidders win franchises on the lowest cost: sometimes it’s on the highest quality. Sometimes rolling stock was tightly controlled, leading to serious overcrowding. Most recently, bidders have been incentivised to acquire new trains – even though, in some cases, this has meant replacing new trains with newer trains. The original franchises have changed – four franchises (Southern, Gatwick Express, Thameslink and Great Northern) have been merged into one. The complexities and high risks have led to some operators (like National Express and Stagecoach) withdrawing from rail franchise bids altogether, leading to a lack of competition.

But the trains kept running. Between February 2007 and August 2020, not a single passenger was killed in a train accident. 99% of trains arrived within 10 minutes in of their advertised time: over 82% were on time to the minute. Fares have increased within government guidelines: successive governments have dithered about how much of the cost of the railways should fall on the taxpayer and how much on the traveller.

In 2018, Keith Williams was appointed to run the latest of many reviews of the industry. His long-delayed report – now with the name of Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport, added to it – has recently been published.

It was triggered by major problems with the introduction of a new timetable – problems with many causes, including late delivery of infrastructure and rolling stock and franchisees being asked to schedule more trains than the infrastructure could handle.

Under the new proposals, “a new public body, Great British Railways (GBR), will own the infrastructure, receive the fare revenue, run and plan the network and set most fares and timetables”. A promise is to deliver more punctual and reliable railways (which should be easy to monitor). “Public funding, with five-year capital settlements, is more certain and predictable than the stop-start regime imposed on British Rail” – a pity no-one in government thought of that in BR days.  “Key strategic priorities for the whole rail network will be set for the next 30 years.” There will be five regional divisions which “will give towns, cities and regions greater control over local ticketing, services and stations”. “Great British Railways will not design services that the infrastructure cannot support, or that are based on unworkable timetables, as happened repeatedly under franchising.”

The review sets out 62 commitments to deliver 10 key outcomes. These are short on quantification – unlike German Railways’ Strong Rail targets (including for example “Local and regional passengers – 1,940m in 2018. Target – over a billion more by 2038.”)

The Government will ‘shortly’ be announcing more electrification schemes. Work on electrification between Leeds and Manchester and to Market Harborough has been announced again. Long awaited infill electrification projects to assist freight and freeports, and extensions of the third-rail network, are mentioned. Five-year infrastructure funding plans are promised: when promised before they have been slow to materialise.

GBR will receive government grants and passenger fares: they will pay operators to run trains. Passenger service contracts (of varying lengths and sizes) will replace franchises – which focussed operators on short-term priorities and provided misaligned incentives (says the Review).   

Flexible season tickets, allowing travel on eight days in any 28, will be introduced. “The government’s ambition is for passengers to be able to buy a through ticket from any bus stop to any station with a single tap on their phone or contactless bank card.” “A single measurement methodology for carbon across railway operations will be adopted alongside other new methodologies to support this, including for construction, maintenance and energy.” Good luck with all those!

Extensive tree planting across the rail estate is commended – someone hasn’t heard of leaves on the line!

Gateless ticket lines at stations is a new initiative – reversing earlier franchise requirements insisting on barrier gates.

The Office of Rail and Road will continue in its role as safety regulator – but only for rail, even though roads are considerably less safe. They will also take over responsibility for that well-known organisation the Rail Ombudsman (no, I hadn’t either).

The BR double-arrow logo is to be retained: no doubt the term InterCity, widely copied, will be too.

Two perversities of the current system are ignored: they involve snow and Boxing Day. In BR days trains would run all night when snow was expected, to clear the conductor rails. Today it’s not in the operators’ interest to pay Network Rail extra track access charges to do this, and Network Rail doesn’t see it as a priority to pay train operators to do so. The Christmas period is seen as a good time to undertake major engineering work – to the detriment of travel on Boxing Day. Franchises do not oblige operators to run trains then even though it’s now a busy shopping day.

In among the innumerable rather nauseating ‘We got it wrong but won’t quite admit it’ statements are some good ideas – ideas which would benefit from quantification and hard targets.

Also see The Williams Report in this week's BTN.

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OUR READERS' FINEST WORDS (All times and dates are GMT)

All comments are filtered to exclude any excesses but the Editor does not have to agree with what is being said. 100 words maximum


David Starkie, United Kingdom

This is a most useful overview by Andrew. It brings out the failings of the bureaucrats who kept chopping and changing franchise specifications, and specifying unworkable timetables etc. But how will things be different? They will still be planning the network and specifying the timetables. The Department will still try and exert control.


Andrew Smith, Maidstone

Good for Andrew Sharp! But what will the next 30 years bring?


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