More than half the length of routes served by former passenger franchises will have been returned to public ownership next month, when Caledonian Sleeper will become the seventh operator to be renationalised over the past five years. LNER took over from the failed Virgin Trains East Coast on 24 June 2018, and has since been followed by Northern, Southeastern and, on 28 May, TransPennine Express. ScotRail and Transport for Wales are also now controlled by their devolved governments.
After Caledonian Sleeper is transferred from Serco to the Scottish Government on 25 June, 13,093 route kilometres will be worked by seven nationalised operators, four of which are based in England.
The ten companies still in the private sector, operating under government contracts, will cover 11,671 route kilometres, or 47.1 per cent of National Rail.
Railnews has published this analysis as speculation grows that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak does not see railway reform and the creation of Great British Railways as a priority in the next session of Parliament, which will be the last before a General Election.
If so, time is unlikely to be found for the necessary legislation to allow GBR to take over most of the responsibilities of the Department for Transport, including awarding tightly controlled operating contracts, and also absorbing Network Rail.
The proposed changes were set out in detail in the 2021 Plan for Rail by Keith Williams and transport secretary Grant Shapps, when Boris Johnson was prime minister. Derby was named as the headquarters of GBR as recently as March this year.
The Williams-Shapps proposals did not exclude the private sector from operating the passenger railway, but set out plans to award operating concessions rather than the old franchises. There is very little commercial risk under concession arrangements, but the operator’s income is mainly restricted to an agreed management fee, while most details, such as fares, timetables and corporate identity, are outside the operator’s control. Concessions are already used on several Transport for London services, including the Elizabeth Line, and also on some tram systems outside London.
The speculation about GBR first appeared in the Times last night, but the Department for Transport has declined to confirm the claims, saying: ‘The Government remains fully committed to reforming our railways and will introduce legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows, having already taken numerous steps towards reform.’