UK

Concerns over speed of rail reforms as Great British Railways is in draft Bill

The establishment of Great British Railways was included in a draft Rail Reform Bill in the King’s Speech (Nick Potts/PA)
The establishment of Great British Railways was included in a draft Rail Reform Bill in the King’s Speech (Nick Potts/PA) The establishment of Great British Railways was included in a draft Rail Reform Bill in the King’s Speech (Nick Potts/PA)

A draft Bill to create a new public sector body to overhaul Britain’s railways has sparked concerns about delays in introducing major reforms.

The establishment of Great British Railways (GBR), first proposed in May 2021, was included in a draft Rail Reform Bill in the King’s Speech.

The Government says the plan must be scrutinised by parliamentarians and industry experts due to the scale and complexity of the changes being made.

But Richard Bowker, former boss of the Strategic Rail Authority, which was a public body providing strategic direction for the industry between 2001 and 2005, told the PA news agency he does not understand why major reforms are taking so long to be delivered.

He said: “I am genuinely struggling to see why it is so complex that, two and a half years since the Williams-Shapps plan was announced, we’re still only at this point.

“Anything that moves us towards a world where government officials have less to do with the day-to-day running things is good news, but why so slow?

“Time is really of the essence. What have you been doing for two and a half years?”

Plans for GBR involve it carrying out functions such as awarding operating contracts to train companies and managing rail infrastructure.

But there have been concerns within the industry that it will never be created due to the length of time the process is taking.

The Rail Reform Bill being a draft means it is unlikely the legislation will make it on to the statute books in this parliamentary session, or before the next general election, which is expected to take place next year.

The creation of GBR was announced by then-transport secretary Grant Shapps in a White Paper in May 2021.

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail was based on the recommendations of a review carried out by former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams, which was established in September 2018.

Asked why fast action is needed, Mr Bowker said: “I think there is a serious possibility that people will kind of give up a bit (on train travel), and then it’s much harder to get them back.

“There’s no doubt that, if you have a disrupted, unreliable railway, it affects people’s willingness to travel.

“We’ve got to get this industrial relations issue resolved and we’ve got to get back to absolute basics in terms of running a boring, reliable railway.

“Anything that resolves the issues of today and starts getting the basic things right, we’ve got to get on with it fast, because if we’re not careful, people will lose faith.”

The Government says benefits for passengers are being introduced without the need for primary legislation, such as simplifying fares and more pay-as-you-go ticketing.

GBR was initially due to be launched in early 2024 but was delayed as the Government axed its plan to introduce a Transport Bill during the last parliamentary session, citing the need to prioritise legislation related to the energy crisis.

In March, the East Midlands city of Derby was announced by Transport Secretary Mark Harper as the location to host the body’s headquarters.

Rail services have been disrupted by members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union at 14 train companies going on strike in a long-running dispute over pay, jobs and conditions.