Getting to grips with . . .

What the arrival of Great British Railways means for passengers

The government will launch a new public body to simplify the rail network

The government has promised simpler ticketing, smoother journeys and a more efficient service to passengers in a huge shake-up of rail services.

Control of Britain’s railways will be handed to a new public sector body, Great British Railways (GBR), which will “set timetables and prices, sell tickets in England and manage rail infrastructure”, says the BBC.

The government plans come eight months after it axed the system of rail franchising and unveiled plans to extend support for rail firms. But after a significant drop in passenger numbers during the pandemic, the government used £12bn of taxpayers’ money to keep trains running. 

Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said GBR will provide “a single familiar brand with a bold new vision” as well as “united, accountable leadership” – but what will the new reforms mean for passengers?

Simpler, but not cheaper, tickets

The government says GBR will “simplify the current mass of confusing tickets” by introducing several reforms. These include:

  • Flexible season tickets will go on sale on 21 June for passengers who commute two or three times a week or on certain routes. They will allow passengers to travel on any eight days in a 28-day period. 
  • A “significant” rollout of pay as you go, contactless and digital ticketing on smartphones
  • A new GBR website where tickets will be sold, including a single compensation system where passengers can apply for refunds. 

Shapps said he could not rule out fare rises, however, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that while the new reforms mean no immediate rise, he couldn’t “give guarantees for years to come”.

Smoother journeys 

The “chaotic introduction” of new timetables in May 2018 led to years of complaints about the “fragmented“ franchising system, which has now been scrapped, reports the BBC. 

But under GBR’s new model, private companies will be paid a flat management fee similar to the “concession” system used for the London Overground and Docklands Light Railway networks, says the Evening Standard.

It will award new “passenger service contracts”, which it says will include “strong incentives” for operators to run “high-quality services and increase passenger numbers”, as well as offering greater accountability, says the government

GBR will also replace Network Rail as the track operator, in a move that signals “a break with EU rail rules, which mandates the separation of train and track management to foster competition”, reports The Independent

The government also says GBR will work closely with “local leaders” to give communities greater control over ticketing, timetables and stations. 

“The new model will encourage innovative bidders, such as community rail partnerships who want to bid for the GBR contract to operate their local branch lines,” said the government. 

Its ‘Achilles’ heel’ 

GBR’s “concentration of power” could also be its “Achilles’ heel”, says the BBC's business correspondent Dominic O’Connell.

“One of the successes of the privatisation was the freedom for train companies to do new things,” he writes, warning that “if that spirit of innovation is lost” it could lead to the railways sliding into “stagnation”. 

He adds that the fear among railway executives is that the Treasury will try to “claw back spending” after supporting services during the pandemic. 

The government insists the move is not a return to nationalisation, as trains will still be run by private companies through the new passenger service contracts, but rail union bosses called it “a missed opportunity by the government to make a clean break from the failures of the past that have left Britain’s railways in the slow lane”, reports Sky News.

Labour’s shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon said the government’s report “raises more questions than it answers” and was “another example of ministers talking a good game, with very little substance underneath”.

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