Over the last 12 months, most of the political running on rail policy has been made by the Labour Party, with their clarion call for ‘public ownership’ winning public support far out of proportion to the number of regular users of the railway network. Labour candidates up-and-down the country reported on how well it went down on the doorstep at the general election, and since then, the Opposition has been working away behind the scenes to work out how public ownership would work in practice.
Today’s publication of the Government’s “Strategic Vision for Rail” is the most significant response yet to the nationalisation agenda. It paints a picture of a partnership railway (building on the recent work of the Rail Delivery Group along similar themes) with new types of franchises offering various levels of increased integration between track and train. At the most integrated end, the new East Coast Partnership promises to be “the first of a new generation of long term regional partnerships bringing together the operation of track and train under a single leader and unified brand”. What this means for Network Rail and existing franchise brands on the East Coast mainline remains to be seen. At this stage it is not clear, but it certainly paints a very different picture of the future of franchises compared to those of the last two decades.
But this is not a ‘one size fits all’ model, as Ministers are keen to stress. The future, in some cases, is small. As such, proposed are some smaller franchises better able to respond to local need. But this raises the question of how small franchises running local services are financially viable in the long-term. At the moment, busy routes effectively cross-subsidise their quieter neighbours within the context of a larger franchise. How does that work in these smaller model franchises of the future?
But the biggest questions of all lie around risk and accountability. If it is a partnership railway, then who ultimately carries safety, commercial and reputational risk? And who is this “single accountable face of the railway” the Government seek? Network Rail, or the operator? Perhaps that distinction is moribund on tomorrow’s hands-held-together railway of the future. Today, the Government is seeking to reassure us that they understand that these questions of risk management and accountability are front and centre of their mind, and they will work with the industry over the coming months to iron out that detail.
The big objective of today was to ‘shoot the goose’ of public ownership. Will it succeed on that? Not on its own. And the media coverage of next month’s fares announcement will dwarf anything we see written about today’s strategy. But it is easy to see how Chris Grayling’s vision of an integrated, nimble and decentralised railway could offer an attractive alternative
to what he would seek to paint as the backward-looking, monolithic model that nationalisation might deliver. At the very least, now the Transport Secretary has set out a position he believes in and is prepared to champion against the alternatives.
In any event, the railway is changing. Whether it is via the Government’s proposals, or Labour’s rather more radical departure from the status quo, the basic model of the industry will go through a further round of evolution in the years to come. There are both opportunities and threats that come out of that and as such there will be winners and losers.
A new shape to the railways also runs alongside a new focus on rail’s important role in the country’s future growth. It is welcome news for the railway industry that rail and the delivery of infrastructure, including HS2, features heavily in the Industrial Strategy published earlier this week which seeks to provide a framework for delivering long-term growth and productivity throughout the UK. From digital railways, skills and supply chain development to rail infrastructure delivery and a strong role in meeting the Government’s four ‘Grand Challenges’, there are significant opportunities ahead for a revitalised railway sector.
However, with Transport Focus research this week revealing that the basics of value-for- money, punctuality and overcrowding remain passengers top three priorities, the industry would be well advised to focus hard on those areas whilst engaging openly and constructively with both the Conservatives and Labour on their policy objectives. The railway has always been political, and never more so than right now.