A new Government must be a catalyst for getting Britain's railways moving again

Announcing a clear, time-bound plan early in its new term is a critical first step to rebuilding confidence and injecting much needed momentum back into Britain's rail sector.

At the Bradshaw Address in February 2023, the Secretary of State reinforced the current Government's commitment to establishing Great British Railways (GBR) as a "guiding mind" that would provide a single point of leadership for Britain's Railways and address the structural issues and fragmentation identified by the Williams Review as holding the sector back.

However, the absence of legislation prior to the election has put the sector in limbo – more than five years after the Williams Review was set up, the destination of Rail Reform remains unclear. This has led to huge uncertainty and disengagement in a sector which had delivered some notable achievements under both parties over the previous 25 years. Business confidence amongst the rail supply chain has been undermined and there is a risk that vital skills will be lost from the industry and critical decisions around infrastructure investment delayed.

Inevitably, this uncertainty is not helped by the fact that not only is a general election imminent, but that the two main parties have quite different (in some places) prescriptions for how the railway should be delivered. Either way, a clear policy programme and a credible action plan is what the sector needs whatever party is in power after the election.

We know what the current Government's rail policy looks like. And should this Government be returned, the sector would welcome an immediate timetable for its stated priorities of legislating to set up GBR and contracting with private sector to deliver train operations via a TfL-style concession model.

But what do we know of Labour's rail policy? Most notably, there is the often-repeated commitment to bring train operators back into public ownership. Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh has also spoken of the need for a "single, accountable, organising brain to break down barriers that have created cost and complexity" – on the face of it a similar body to the guiding mind proposed by the Williams Review. Finally, in the aftermath of the cancellation of the Northern Leg of HS2, Labour has set up a review, led by Jurgen Maier, former CEO of Siemens UK, into how future investment in rail infrastructure can help boost jobs and support economic growth.

Many would observe that public ownership of train operators in itself is not a panacea for the issues of fragmentation and lack of long-term direction identified by the Williams Review. Therefore, the challenge is how can Labour bring these three strands of its policy into a single plan that quickly gives momentum to the sector – even if legislation to bring about Rail Reform is not an immediate priority given its other policy commitments.

An important initial step would be for Labour in its first weeks in office, to make an announcement which sets out the principles of its policy at a high level – its own version of the 2023 Bradshaw Address. Such an announcement might cover:

  • What the remit of the new "organising brain" that will lead the railways will be and which parts of today's public sector landscape will be brought together to create this body
  • A vision of how train operators will be run differently once they have been nationalised – how, for example, will operations be integrated more effectively with infrastructure management to deliver better customer outcomes and value for money for the taxpayer
  • How the transition to public ownership of train operators will be managed and what role the private sector will play during that transition
  • How the new public sector body would work with the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales and Combined Authorities in England
  • The timetable for a programme of design work (say six months) where the detail behind these principles will be worked through

Once this design work had been completed, after six months, Labour could then:

  • Establish the new public sector body in Shadow form
  • Begin to operate those train operators that are already in public ownership (Northern, LNER, Southeastern and TPE) under its new proposed structure to test its effectiveness – potentially single leadership across infrastructure and operations managed using a unified P&L
  • Announce the timetable for the migration of those remaining privately owned operators to the new arrangements

The new public sector body could be given a number of tasks to progress in Shadow form working within today's legislative framework. These would include:

  • Taking the recommendation of Jurgen Maier's Infrastructure Review to work through the detail of a new rail investment strategy, helping restore business confidence amongst the supply chain
  • Leading on integrated business planning for the industry to deliver on the opportunities from bringing track and train together
  • Progressing the programme of Fares and Ticketing reform that the Williams Review urgently recommended
  • Agreeing those contract extensions that are necessary with private sector operators to support the transition plan to public ownership
  • Developing the new frameworks and policies (financial, capacity allocation, timetable development) that would operate following legislation

The new public sector body could then be formally stood up after legislation is passed - potentially two years into a new Government.

It is likely that the structure and arrangements of this new body would evolve over time as the requirements of the industry change. Indeed, it is unlikely that the restructuring of an industry as complex as the railways could ever be got "right first time" – privatisation and the various different structures that British Rail operated under are a testament to this. However, this should not be a reason for prevarication. After a period of prolonged uncertainty, the industry requires action and it is vital that a new Government (of either political persuasion) acts as a catalyst for this.