UK rail, via Istock

Fears over the future of Great British Railways

According to insiders within the industry, the flagship Great British Railways project is currently in danger of being scrapped after reports of work slowing down significantly since the appointment of new Prime Minister Liz Truss.

As other Boris Johnson helmed projects are being scaled down, such as the promise to build a new 40 hospitals, fears are rising over the stability of this rail franchise replacement project.

The GBR project was unveiled in May 2021, being welcomed with open arms from the rail sector as former Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ brainchild was birthed with ambitions to revolutionise the industry through ticket reform and the introduction of a new outsourcing process. Building upon the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, plans included digital ticketing measures such as more pay as you go, contactless and smartphone integration within UK rail.

The Department for Transport reacted to GBR after its unveiling, saying:

“A new public body, Great British Railways (GBR), will integrate the railways, owning the infrastructure, collecting fare revenue, running and planning the network, and setting most fares and timetables.

“GBR will simplify the current mass of confusing tickets with new flexible season tickets and a significant roll-out of more convenient Pay as You Go, contactless and digital ticketing on smartphones.

“A new GBR website will sell tickets and a single compensation system for operators in England will provide a simple system for passengers to access information and apply for refunds.

“There will remain a substantial and often greater role for the private sector. GBR will contract private partners to operate most trains to the timetables and fares it specifies.”

Plans are still currently in place to announce the location of the GBR headquarters this year, however these are currently in limbo after sources close to Grant Shapps have heard of potential policy scrapping, despite no formal confirmation of such a policy change.

When reaching out for confirmation regarding these rumours to the Department for Transport, an official statement was issued saying:

“The Secretary of State has made clear the Government’s commitment to modernising rail for passengers and freight and transforming the industry so that it is sustainable for the future.

“We are continuing to work with the sector to tackle the challenges set out in the Plan for Rail, which continue to face the railway as it recovers from the pandemic. We remain committed to reforming our railways, improving journeys for passengers and creating a better, more modern UK rail industry.”

For now, these are just rumours with no official announcement, however the sourcing of the hearsay is notable as it seems to be coming from the camp closest to Grant Shapps, who has recently become one of the faces of the opposition to Ms Truss’s premiership. Shapps, who is rumoured to be being backed as a replacement Interim Prime Minister in the unlikely event of a Liz Truss ousting, has publicly condemned the Government for not supporting low-income households and prioritising the tax cuts for the richest.

The current turmoil in the UK rail sector, with ongoing industrial action and operators such as Avanti West Coast struggling to maintain their services, highlights the need for a major sector reform. With Labour championing nationalisation in a plethora of UK sectors, the Conservative Party would be wise to further progress with GBR as their alternative option. Though this project comes from a previous premiership, based on findings from a review titled with the previous Transport Secretary’s name (Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail), it would be unwise to throw away the steady progress that has been made, especially with the job creation that has stemmed from it.

It is likely that GBR will progress as initially planned, but tweaks along the way are to be expected as a new Government seeks to stamp their mark on this critical reform.

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