The railways have always been political. Nationalised vs. privatised rail network has traditionally been an ideological decision, depending on whether you are on the left or right. Yet the launch of Great British Railways this week was distinctly non-ideological – or at least that’s what Rt Hon Grant Shapps said when he was delivering his statement in the House of Commons. So, either this government is actually the most left wing we’ve seen since the 1970s or we genuinely believe Shapps when he says they just want to do what works. Regardless of ideology, it would be foolish to dismiss this week’s announcement as anything other than political.
It’s taken more than 18 months since the Williams Review was first mooted as being ready to publish, and the global pandemic has enabled an acceleration of the ambition. The collapse of the passenger market, bringing all operators effectively under government control, is as nationalised as the industry has been in 25 years and has effectively cleared the way for a clean slate. By placing his name on the review, Shapps rightly banked on positive headlines and political kudos. In fact his announcement managed to hit all the current political buzz words of the day – devolved responsibility, net zero, levelling up – all under a new national banner of Great British Railways.
The concession approach to passenger services under a single GBR brand, ticketing system and timetabling body, is pretty close to nationalisation. But he was quick to point out this was not nationalised rail and a return to British Rail’s bad sandwiches and dirty trains. This is the people’s railway, or more accurately a plan which put passengers at the heart of the network. It’s a fine ambition and according to Shapps it isn’t rocket science – passengers want trains on time, comfortable seats and WiFi. Indeed, anyone who’s been left on a wet, freezing platform unclear when, or if, a train will actually turn up will be cheering the Government on, willing a better future. Of course, not everyone was happy. The trade unions and the left moaned they didn’t go far enough, essentially nicking their nationalisation plan and turning it into something more palatable for the right.
However, as successive governments have found, it may not be rocket science, but the railways have a way of making everything more complex, challenging and always more political than predicted. Great British Railways may be a popularist, political win today, but whether Shapps can deliver on his promise before the British people get fed up of waiting for the shiny new service remains to be seen.