Great British Railways plan aims to simplify privatised system

Great British Railways plan aims to simplify privatised system

The rail industry will be simplified but still substantially privatised as a rebranded Great British Railways, the government has pledged after publishing its long-awaited overhaul on Thursday.

A white paper places control of rail infrastructure and services under the new arm’s-length public body, with franchises replaced by contracts that will incentivise private firms on punctuality and efficiency rather than raising revenue.

Great British Railways will run and plan the network, as well as providing online tickets, information and compensation for passengers nationwide.

It will streamline and simplify fares, including extending contactless and pay-as-you-go systems to more parts of the country.

The prime minister, Boris Johnson, said he was “a great believer in rail”, but added: “For too long passengers have not had the level of service they deserve.”

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said passengers had been failed by “years of fragmentation, confusion and overcomplication”. He said Great British Railways would “become a single familiar brand with a bold new vision for passengers – of punctual services, simpler tickets and a modern and green railway that meets the needs of the nation”.

Keith Williams, the chair of the Williams Review – commissioned after the timetable fiasco of 2018 but held back from publication for 18 months – said: “Our plan is built around the passenger, with new contracts which prioritise excellent performance and better services, better value fares, and creating clear leadership and real accountability when things go wrong.”

The government said despite structural challenges to the railway since Covid-19 it was committed to growing the rail network. It said the changes would “drive significant efficiencies in the railways’ inflated costs, reducing complexity and duplication, increasing flexibility, changing working practices”, and that were “the only way to protect services and jobs in the long term”.

A new national flexible season ticket will be introduced from late June to tempt back part-time commuters, with passenger numbers now only 39% of pre-pandemic levels.

Labour said the review raised more questions than it answered. Jim McMahon, the shadow transport secretary, said: “With fare hikes, £1bn cuts to Network Rail and broken promises to communities across the country, it’s yet another example of ministers talking a good game, with very little substance underneath.”

Unions echoed the concerns. The TSSA general secretary, Manuel Cortes, said the plans were “papering over the cracks” of privatisation.

The RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch, said it was “a missed opportunity to make a clean break”, adding: “The government talk about ending a generation of fragmentation but then leave the same private companies in place to extract fees that could be invested in building a truly integrated national rail network.”

Mick Whelan, the general secretary of train drivers’ union, Aslef, said: “We fear that, with capacity falling through the floor and a £2.9bn shortfall in revenue at the fare box, the government is going to use the Williams-Shapps plan to try to justify cuts in services.”

Andy Bagnall, the director general of the Rail Delivery Group, said train operators had called for many of the promised reforms: “Getting the detail right will be crucial to ensuring that the white paper fulfils its potential to improve journeys, offer independent oversight and clear accountability, and create a new set of fares which are simpler and more value for money.”

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