This year’s George Bradshaw Address – the annual speech on the direction of the railways, and one of the set piece events in the rail calendar – was delivered by the Transport Secretary, Mark Harper. The main takeaway is the confirmation that the Sunak Government will be continuing with the proposed Great British Railways (GBR) reforms which would replace Network Rail as the operator, but also have responsibility for passenger train services. Other than this, the speech was more notable for Harper’s views on where we should be going with rail reform rather than having anything big to announced – we still don’t know where the GBR HQ will be.
As well as seeking to strike the right tone, and chugging along with previously announced reforms, the speech was notable for his desire to work less for the same pay. He wanted Train Operating Companies (TOC) to take back control and prevent he and Huw Merriman – Rail Minister – from spending their Sundays pouring over timetabling decisions. Such operational decisions should not be going to ministers, he argued, and TOC Managing Director’s should be able to “manage and direct”. TOCs should have the freedom to manage their networks how best they see fit. The issue is that at the moment the Government do oversee quite a lot of TOCs, a situation the Government will be wanting to move away from.
GBR reforms will – as Harper confirmed – require legislation. For a Government with not much time before an election and a No 10 with not much head space for anything but inflation, the NHS and immigration, this represents a big political commitment. So why are the Government doing this?
For Harper, and for the Conservatives, this is partly driven by blame and nationalisation. When it comes to services, at present, the buck stops with Government. Poor services add to the public view that Britain under the Conservatives is going backwards. But the reforms are about making sure decisions are taken by professionals who work in the industry day to day. Being able to deliver better services would play into Sunak’s narrative that he is a doer and a fixer. Also, it is about ideology. The Government don’t want to be running and paying for the railways forever and they want a model where the state only gives strategic oversight (a guiding hand rather than a fat controller) with decisions being made by franchises. If they cannot prove to the public that services are better off in private hands then Labour will have ammunition to re-nationalise the sector.
But what do the public want? It is unlikely that they care much for who runs the railways as long as they can get to work and see their family and friends.
Like most issues facing the Government, there is no straight forward answer, not much time to deal with the problem and not enough political will to make huge reforms. Only time will tell if the GBR reforms get things back on track. It would be a positive step forward if these reforms deliver control of services back to the companies themselves rather than continuous micro-management from Government, so the industry will be hoping Harper is true to his word.