Keeping the focus on our railways

Harold MacMillan's famous response, when asked what he regarded as the most difficult part of being Prime Minister, was "Events, dear boy, events.."

No-one can deny that the last three years have been anything but momentous – as soon as one unforeseen calamity began to subside, another one hove into view. Each of these events places immense pressure on the government, and as a result, priorities will change. Everybody understands that.

However, this week's announcement of an unspecified delay in bringing forward the legislation needed to enact Great British Railways or GBR, itself borne out of the Williams Shapps Plan for Rail, signals a lamentable failure to understand the central role of the railways in achieving sustainable economic growth and change for good in society. The fact that the announcement was made with no consultation with GBR leadership points to either a wholesale lack of government commitment or a cavalier attitude to the very people who can deliver the vital change needed across the network. Sadly it also ignores the fact that change and reform in the rail industry is long overdue, without which, massive opportunities are lost.

Williams Shapps, heralding an apparently bright future for Britain's railways, proposed so much: a dramatically improved customer experience, seamless ticketing, fares reform, more responsive services, integration across other transport modes and holistic management and decision-making by those best placed to do so. Critically, as we see so much progress happening in integrated transport in regions from Manchester to Liverpool and the west of England, it promised a structure that would have made it easier to have that integration extend to national rail connections. At last, we could see a truly integrated mobility eco-system with rail as its spine and seamless informed access for customers to multiple options for travelling the first and last miles. At last, the chance to consign antiquated operational systems had arrived, and we could transform our rail, and transport networks into a national asset fit for the 21st century – focused on customers. Of course, no-one was so starry-eyed as to think that the 62 commitments in the plan stood the slightest chance of all being implemented. But it was a welcome start.

So with this delay, and no proposed date in sight, what are we to think? And more importantly, do? Well, one thing is crystal clear. None of the urgent need for change has gone away, and will only get worse with each passing month. A future Labour government is committed to nationalising our railways – not the dramatic move it might have been five years ago, given the huge programme of government 'life-support' which COVID brought about. With vision - and if that incoming government were to listen to the industry and the supply chain - then in many ways, nationally owned railways may be a good step. As always, the devil resides malevolently in the detail of what exactly 'nationalisation' means. Innovation will come from the private sector; ideas for improvement must be drawn from across private and public sector – but designing and implementing innovation across the national rail network will always work better and faster if the heavy hand of government exercises some self-restraint.

The short term is worrying. The legislative timetable of late 2023 was probably necessary to give the GBR Transition Team time to get organised and plan exactly how the transition, processes and systems would transfer across from Network Rail. But they have been left in the dark now, seemingly without much guidance on future direction. It almost feels like it would have been better not to have proposed any change, than set this change in motion only to pull the rug so needlessly from under the feet of so many rail and transport professionals, all trying their best to bring about a better railway.

The next year promises further political turmoil and there is no prospect of strong direction for the rail industry in the face of so much upheaval – both involuntary and self-inflicted. So now, the mobility industry must work together like never before. We must make the case and provide the evidence and business cases that show irrefutably how an integrated, fairly priced, multi-modal mobility eco-system, with rail at its core, can bring social mobility, economic growth, access to education and employment as well as huge environmental gains. We must prove that open data, intelligently used, can optimise services and increase access for all, getting freight off roads onto a better run rail network. We must build on the great work done by ITS UK and the Railway Industry Association and so many others to unite our voices to show that stasis and delay and "it's all too difficult" are simply unacceptable responses.

The government promised a path to reform and change and a new focus on the primary raison d'etre of our transport system – customers. Now that they have apparently lost impetus for whatever reason, we must all work together - for our good as an industry and a supply community, as well as a nation – to get the focus back on the changes needed and how we can achieve them. Let's just hope that whichever government holds the reins of power in the next two years, they listen and give the support and freedom to let change truly begin.