Transport secretary Mark Harper has promised to continue setting up the railway’s new ‘guiding mind’, Great British Railways.
The process seemed to have stalled last year when plans to introduce the necessary legislation were put on hold, with the government saying that there was not enough Parliamentary time this session.
However, in the 2023 Bradshaw address, the transport secretary said he would be announcing the winner of the competition to host GBR’s headquarters before Easter, and then respond to the consultation on GBR’s legislative powers by the summer.
He also promised a major role for the private sector in the future railway, after the collapse of franchising during the Covid pandemic: ‘We will create a more customer focused and joined up railway. But we want to go further, I want to go further, and actually enhance the role of the private sector. Not just in running services but in maximising competition, innovation, and revenue growth right across the industry.’
Mr Harper continued: ‘I want the private sector to play its most important role in our railways yet. To reinvigorate the sector, drive innovation and most importantly, attract more customers to the railway. It will do so in partnership with GBR. GBR will help set the right commercial conditions across several key areas.
‘There will be new Passenger Service Contracts that will balance the right performance incentives with simple, commercially driven targets. But they won’t be a one-size fits all approach. In the past, we know some operators took on more financial risk than they could handle. So, now that risk will sit where it is best managed and that includes with operators, but only where it drives the best outcomes for passengers and taxpayers. We shouldn’t be afraid to let managing directors of train operating companies actually manage and direct their operations. Which is not what they’re able to do at the moment.
‘We’ll also open up railway data and systems, whilst lowering barriers to entry for the industry. For ticketing, that means a more competitive retail market and I will welcome new players to spur more innovation and give passengers the services they need.
‘We will expand commercial opportunities around land and property near stations. In Japan, rail companies take full advantage of these investments, generating even more income for the railways and we should look to do the same.’
The RMT has criticised some aspects of Mr Harper’s reforms, but Network Rail chief executive and Great British Railways Transition Team lead Andrew Haines said: ‘It’s really positive news for the users of the rail system that the secretary of state for transport has confirmed the government’s commitment to the next phase of rail reform and the establishment of Great British Railways.
‘GBR will create a simpler and better railway for everyone in Britain by providing clear accountable leadership and bringing track and train together, with a strong commercial mindset and working in partnership with the best that the private sector has to offer.’
Mark Harper’s plans to simplify ticketing have mainly concerned the abolition of return fares, to be replaced by ‘single leg’ tariffs, which has been tried on LNER and will be extended this spring.
But he also wants fares to vary according to how busy each train is. He said: ‘We’re also going to learn from the aviation sector and better manage capacity as well as raise revenue by trialling demand-based pricing on some LNER services too.’
There was encouraging news for open access operators, because Mr Harper will support more of them ‘where it benefits passengers and taxpayers’.
The Railway Industry Association’s CEO Darren Caplan said: ‘The Railway Industry Association and our members will welcome the clarity on rail reform provided by transport secretary Mark Harper. The clarity around GBR, which the secretary of state was clear will be a strategic guiding mind rather than a controlling mind, is essential to ensuring that rail projects are delivered cost-effectively and efficiently by the rail supply chain, providing value for money to both the fare payer and the tax payer.’
The Campaign for Better Transport was also in favour. The CBT’s Norman Baker said: ‘This was a very encouraging speech from the transport tecretary. It’s particularly encouraging to see a way forward for growing passenger and freight business, as opposed to making cuts to save money.
‘The challenge now is for the transport secretary and rail minister to make this happen.’
Meanwhile, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch described railway privatisation as an ‘unmitigated disaster’, and said it was no good for the transport secretary to ‘extol’ its virtues.
He continued: ‘Many rail services that are already in meltdown will suffer even more because of plans to cut thousands of rail jobs and jeopardise safety standards but all the government can offer is tinkering around the edges on passenger fares.
‘Rail reform and a vision for the industry needs to have public ownership at its core and the goodwill of railway workers to make it happen.
‘But with the government hellbent on rewarding the private sector and attacking the terms and conditions of rail staff, goodwill is in short supply.’