Image of train passing through London, via Istock

Mark Harper unveils plans to reform the rail sector

Transport Secretary Mark Harper delivered his vision for the future of rail at the annual George Bradshaw address in central London yesterday, pledging himself to enhance the role of the private sector in British rail.

Describing the current state of affairs in British rail as “financially unstable” and “not fit for purpose”, Mr Harper has established a vision to increase the role played by the private sector throughout the railways “not just in running services but in maximising competition, innovation and revenue growth right across the country.”

This approach to the railway’s future has come, in part, from the ongoing impact that has stemmed from the recent Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, which have “made a bad problem worse.” Though passenger numbers have been steadily increasing across the UK in recent months, it is estimated that season ticket sales are at just 28% of pre-virus levels.

The loss of revenue throughout the sector has been crippling for industry growth, with organisations and operators within the sector having to make the best of a bad situation, which has been inhibited more so from the ongoing industrial action that continues to ravage potential revenue from the sector.

Mark Harper addressed the severity of these conditions, saying:

“The impact on the industry’s bottom line has been stark, with revenue around £125-175 million lower each month as costs keep rising year on year.

“Any other industry would have collapsed years ago.

“But the railways have only survived due to the public purse – the source of over 70% of income over the past two years, at a cost of £1,000 per household.

“I won’t mince my words: operating the railways is now financially unsustainable.”

It is in these areas that Mr Harper believes the private sector can help transform rail for the better, with the guidance and oversight of Great British Railways (GBR). After consistent government reshuffling in the past 12 months, the future of GBR has been unclear, with no word on the announcement of the GBR headquarters location. Mr Harper addressed this in his speech, as he reaffirmed the commitment to GBR’s delivery, confirming it will be launched with a headquarters announcement coming before Easter.

Commenting directly on the delivery of GBR, Mark Harper said:

“We will establish Great British Railways, or GBR. As we prepare for that, we’ll pick up the pace of reform. I am pleased to announce that the winner of the GBR HQ competition will be revealed before Easter. And by the summer, we will respond to the consultation on GBR’s legislative powers.”

Commitments to GBR will enhance the role of the public sector in rail, representing a “guiding mind to co-ordinate the network…finally treating the railway as the whole system it should be, rather than a web of disparate interests that it’s become.”

Mark Harper addressed the role of GBR and its guidance with further private sector integration, saying:

“I want the private sector to play its most important role in our railways yet. To reinvigorate the sector, drive innovation and most importantly, attract more customers to the railway. It will do so in partnership with GBR. GBR will help set the right commercial conditions across several key areas.”

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