Great British Railways body has been announced to run industry – but what about Scotland?
A major shake-up of Britain’s railways has been condemned by the Scottish Government for failing to respect devolved control of the network north of the Border.
The UK Government has announced a new body, Great British Railways, will take over responsibility for both tracks and trains in the biggest change since British Rail was privatised nearly 25 years ago.
It will take over track owner Network Rail – already part of the UK Government – and issue contracts to private firms to run trains, set most fares and timetables, and sell tickets.
The body is expected to take over in 2023, with a new version of the classic British Rail double arrow symbol – still used for stations – as its logo.
However, Scottish ministers are angry that their control over train operator ScotRail and spending by Network Rail in Scotland has not been confirmed in the plan.
It could provoke a fresh clash between newly-reappointed Transport Secretary Michael Matheson and his UK counterpart Grant Shapps, who Mr Matheson has already accused of trying to force Scotland's hand over transport priorities.
Mr Shapps said the new body would place the railways under a “single, accountable national leadership”.
He said: “This is not re-nationalisation, which this Government continues to believe failed the railways – rather, it is simplification.”
But the Scottish Government said: “There is no mention of Scotland in these details, and it is not clear how these proposals will respect the established and successful devolved responsibility for railways in Scotland.
“The white paper will affect Scotland's Railway [ScotRail and Network Rail Scotland], yet the Scottish Government has not been consulted on what is now published.
“Our view remains that a public sector controlled, aligned and better integrated railway will deliver for Scotland’s economy and its communities.
"Full devolution of our railways is necessary to ensure that we can deliver the high performing and responsive services that Scotland’s communities and its economy deserves.
"We have made these points strongly and repeatedly to the UK Government, which has chosen to ignore the views of Scottish ministers who fund Scotland’s Railway.”
The plans announced by Mr Shapps are based on a long-delayed rail review by Royal Mail chairman and former British Airways chairman Keith Williams, which was triggered by the chaotic introduction of new timetables by several English train operators in 2018.
He said Great British Railways, created under the “Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail”, would “simplify the current mass of confusing tickets”.
New flexible season tickets for commuters who travel to work two or three times a week will go on sale on June 21 for use from a week later.
The UK Department for Transport (DfT) said there would also be a "significant roll out" of more pay-as-you-go, contactless and digital ticketing on smartphones.
Great British Railways’ contracts to run trains will include those currently run by cross-Border operators LNER, Avanti West Coast, CrossCountry and TransPennine Express.
Mr Shapps made a number of references to “Britain’s” and “British” but without clarifying if the new body would take over roles and responsibilities from the Scottish Government.
He said Britain's railways were built to "forge stronger connections" and provide "an affordable, reliable and rapid service", but passengers had been failed by "years of fragmentation, confusion and over-complication".
"That complicated and broken system ends today.
"Great British Railways marks a new era in the history of our railways.
"It will 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."
In a further bold pledge, the DfT said Great British Railways “will drive significant efficiencies in the railways' inflated costs, reducing complexity and duplication, increasing flexibility, changing working practices and making it easier and cheaper to invest”.
It even held out the prospect of community rail partnerships being able to bid for contracts “to operate their local branch lines”.
However, significantly, it said the “overall strategic direction for the railway, including infrastructure investment and fares strategy” will continue to be set by the UK Government.
Mr Williams 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."
Anthony Smith, chief executive of passenger watchdog Transport Focus, said: "Passengers will welcome this move towards a more accountable and joined-up railway.
"Ultimately what they will care about is whether rail is the best option for them - if it is reliable, efficient and good value."
Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, dismissed the plan as "papering over the cracks".
He said: "A concessions-based model will still see passengers' and taxpayer money leak out of our industry in the form of dividend payments for the greedy shareholders of the private operators who will hold them."
Andy Bagnall, director general of the Rail Delivery Group, which represents the industry, said: “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.”
Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines said: “Passengers deserve a reliable, affordable and sustainable railway, focused on them.
"Today’s announcement will help us deliver that by simplifying the railway, paving the way to dismantle the legacy of complexity and fragmentation.
"Passengers and freight users will once more be put front and centre of a service designed and run for their needs.
“These changes will take time, but I am determined to get to work quickly with the industry and government.
"The pandemic has created significant challenges for the industry, and that means the changes we have to make are even more urgent.
"We must attract passengers back, deliver efficiencies and improve the service we provide.”