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In February 2024, the Government published a draft Rail Reform Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. This delivers some of what was promised in the 2021 rail white paper, the Williams-Shapps plan for rail, described by the then Transport Secretary Grant Shapps as “the biggest shake up” of the sector in over 30 years.

In April 2024, Labour published its plan for rail reform, Getting Britain Moving: Labour’s Plan to Fix Britain’s Railways (PDF).

Draft Rail Reform Bill

In the 2023 King’s Speech, the Government announced it would introduce a draft Rail Reform Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. The draft Bill was published on 20 February 2024.

The draft Bill sets out the necessary legislation to create a publicly owned Integrated Rail Body (IRB) and to transfer some powers from the Secretary of State for Transport to the IRB (PDF), including the powers to agree franchises. Network Rail Infrastructure Limited would be designated as the IRB (PDF).

The IRB would act as a central decision maker for railway infrastructure as well as planning and contracting of passenger services in Great Britain, which are currently done by separate organisations.

While much of the reaction to the draft Bill has been positive, there have been criticisms of it being a draft Bill, since there will not be parliamentary time to pass legislation before the general election on 4 July 2024.

Rail reform: Progress to date

In March 2024, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a review of progress to date on rail reform. This noted that the rail reform programme is high-risk and complex. It also noted that the Department for Transport (DfT) has made limited progress against its plans, with most work and expected savings delayed until after the 2024 general election.

The NAO report made four recommendations, focused on work that the DfT can undertake now to ensure it can successfully deliver rail reform following the general election.

On 27 May 2024, the Commons Public Accounts Committee published Rail reform: The rail transformation programme. This made six recommendations, focused on implementing rail reform and progress that can be made without legislation.

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail was published in May 2021 and set out the Government’s plans for altering the management of railways in Great Britain. In a statement to Parliament, the Transport Secretary described the plan as “the biggest shake up in three decades, bringing the railway together under a single national leadership, with one overwhelming aim: to deliver for passengers”.

 The plan proposed:

  • establishing a new public body, ‘Great British Railways’, to act as a single “guiding mind” to own the infrastructure, receive fare revenue, run and plan the network and set most fares and timetables;
  • creating a new 30-year strategy for the railway alongside five-year business plans to “provide clear, long-term plans for transforming the railways to strengthen collaboration, unlock efficiencies and incentivise innovation”;
  • creating anational brand and identity (an updated version of British Rail’s double arrow logo) to emphasise that the railways are one connected network, with national and regional sub-identities;
  • reforming and upgrading to the fares system, with an emphasis on standardisation and simplicity, as well as introducing new and innovative products such as flexible season tickets; and
  • replacing franchising with a new commercial model similar to that used on Transport for London’s Overground and bus network, where the revenue from fares goes to the public sector and private operators are paid a fee to run services.

The IRB in the draft Rail Reform Bill will be branded as Great British Railways, which was proposed in the plan.

Labour’s plan for rail

In December 2023 Labour commissioned an independent Review of Rail Infrastructure and Urban Transport. Following this, it published Getting Britain Moving: Labour’s Plan to Fix Britain’s Railways (PDF) on 25 April 2024.

This plan has a number of similarities to the plans for rail reform in the 2021 rail white paper the Williams-Shapps plan for rail. However, Labour is proposing that as contracts with train operators come to an end, they will be nationalised (PDF). Labour’s plan also sets out several actions that can be undertaken without legislation, including making changes to the rail timetable, reviewing fares and setting up a forum to improve relationships with rail workers and trade unions.

Reaction to Labour’s plan has also been largely positive, although some have criticised its plan to nationalise train operators.

Railways in Great Britain: The current system

Since privatisation of the railways in 1993, responsibility and accountability for the running of the railway is split between a range of different bodies, often operating with different incentives. For example:

  • most rail infrastructure is owned, maintained and operated by Network Rail, a publicly owned company (with some limited exceptions).
  • most passenger services have been run by privately-owned train operating companies (TOCs) under multi-year franchises let by the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments.
  • trains (or rolling stock) are owned by private rolling stock leasing companies (ROSCOs) and leased to the TOCs.
  • most railway stations, while owned by Network Rail, are leased to train operators, except for the main passenger terminals which Network Rail runs itself.

Since privatisation, successive governments have attempted to address the fragmentation that exists within the rail industry by bringing responsibility for track and train (namely responsibility for managing the infrastructure and running services) closer together.

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