On 5 December 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following question for short debate:

Lord Goddard of Stockport (Liberal Democrat) to ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of their decision not to introduce a new Transport Bill on (1) the establishment of Great British Railways, and (2) plans to improve rail services in the north of England and Northern Powerhouse Rail.

1.    Government plans to reform the railways

1.1 Current situation

The railways in Great Britain are currently run by a mix of private and public bodies, each with different functions. The House of Commons Library briefing, ‘Rail FAQs’ outlines the complexity of this current situation in further detail.

1.2 The Williams-Shapps plan for rail

In September 2018, the government established a review of the railways in Great Britain led by Keith Williams, a former chief executive of British Airways. The review was largely completed by early 2020. However, to ensure that its conclusions were “still appropriate in the light of the ongoing pandemic”, it was extended in “close partnership” with Grant Shapps, the then secretary of state for transport. The summary of responses for the Williams review was published in May 2021. Mr Williams’s findings included that “too often, the railways are not getting the basics right”, referring to the timeliness of trains, issues with purchasing tickets and the accessibility and inclusiveness of the system.

These findings informed the government’s white paper, ‘The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail’, which was also published in May 2021. In a statement to the House of Commons on 20 May 2021, Mr Shapps said that the plan was the “biggest shake up in three decades”. The proposals in the white paper included:

  • creating a new public body, Great British Railways, which would act as a “guiding mind” and own the infrastructure, run and plan the network, organise the timetables, and set most fares
  • replacing the franchise system with new passenger service contracts, similar to those used to run London buses and the London overground
  • reforming and upgrading the fares system with a focus on simplification and standardisation as well as introducing new and more modern products such as flexible season tickets
  • creating a new 30-year strategy to provide “clear, long-term plans for transforming the railways” in order to “strengthen collaboration, unlock efficiencies and incentivise innovation”
  • establishing a new national brand and identity “to emphasise that the railways are one connected network” under an updated version of the existing ‘double arrow’ logo

1.3 Queen’s Speech 2022

During the May 2022 Queen’s Speech, the government said that it would introduce a transport bill to implement the changes set out in the Williams-Shapps plan. The briefing notes for the Queen’s Speech explained that the purpose of the bill was to simplify the railways and keep the UK at the forefront of transport innovation. It also set out that the main elements of the bill would be:

  • Providing a new body, Great British Railways, with powers so it could act as the single national leader of the railways, with clear lines of accountability for decision-making and joined-up leadership to deliver a customer-focused railway. This would include improving accessibility and promoting open data. Great British Railways would also have a clear mandate, goals and budgets set by the government, who would reserve powers of direction.
  • Transferring contracting powers for passenger services to Great British Railways and expanding the role of the private sector under the new model. It would also introduce new passenger service contracts focused on getting trains running punctually and reliably.
  • Introducing new laws to “safely enable self-driving and remotely operated vehicles and vessels”. It would also support the roll-out of electric vehicle charge points and enable the licensing of London pedicabs.

Following the Queen’s Speech, in June 2022 the government began to consult on its proposed legislative changes. The consultation did not seek feedback on the non-legislative aspects of the Williams-Shapps plan. It closed on 4 August 2022. The Department for Transport is currently analysing the feedback received.

2.    Recent developments

2.1 Legislation to reform the railways delayed

The government recently announced that it would not bring forward legislation to reform the railways in the current parliamentary session. On 19 October 2022, the then secretary of state for transport, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, gave evidence to the House of Commons Transport Committee. The former chair of the committee, Huw Merriman—the current minister of state for rail and High Speed 2 (HS2)— asked Ms Trevelyan if the government would introduce a transport bill in the current parliamentary session. Responding, she said:

A big transport bill, no. The challenges of things like the energy legislation we have to bring in, and various others, have meant that we have lost the opportunity to have that in this third session. What we are continuing to pitch for will be what I would call a narrow bill around future transport technologies and legislation around things like e-scooters. There is quite a broad mix of regulatory change that we need to bring in.

Focusing on legislation relating to the railways, Ms Trevelyan said that “the bigger piece around rail transformation” would need to be looked at in the fourth parliamentary session. She said that the government is currently looking at whether there are changes that could be made without primary legislation. Ms Trevelyan also explained that the government had created a ministerial portfolio under which “we have brought together everything that is rail”.

On 24 October 2022, Labour’s Rachael Maskell (MP for York Central and shadow minister for the department of digital, culture, media and sport) was granted permission to ask the government an urgent question on these plans. Responding, Kevin Foster, the then minister of state responsible for rail, confirmed that the plans for legislation to modernise the railways have been delayed due to a lack of parliamentary time. However, he said that the government is committed to introducing the legislation necessary to create Great British Railways “as soon as possible”.

Ahead of the legislation, Mr Foster said that the government would continue to work with the Great British Railways transition team and the wider sector to “push ahead with our ambitious modernisation programme”. Mr Foster also gave an update on the competition which was run to identify a location for the Great British Railways headquarters. He said that he hoped to be able to “announce the successful location shortly—subject to other events outside the chamber”.

2.2 Reaction to the announcement

Following Mr Foster’s response to the urgent question, Labour’s Rachael Maskell asked the government a number of questions about the impact of its decision. Some of these questions related to the competition to host Great British Railway’s headquarters. Stating that several locations had taken part in the competition “at significant cost”, Ms Maskell asked if the relocation would proceed and what the process would be. She also asked the government how it would address the “failure issues across the rail network that Great British Railways was to resolve, including the contract failure on the west coast mainline and elsewhere”. In addition, she queried what discussions the secretary of state had had with the trade unions about the change and asked if the government was “abandoning” the William-Shapps and levelling up plans.

Responding for the government, Mr Foster confirmed that the relocation of Great British Railway’s headquarters would go ahead, saying that the successful bidder would be announced in the “not-too-distant future”. He also said that the secretary of state had met with general secretaries of the leading trade unions involved in the rail sector. However, he said that this was “not to discuss abandoning the plan, because we have not abandoned the plan”. Rather, he said that the government would be taking forward “a range of work to reform and modernise our railways” even in the absence of a bill in the current session.

The shadow minister for transport, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, also spoke in response to the urgent question. He argued that the government’s decision showed “a serious lack of ambition and long-term vision” and had left “the whole of the rail industry in the lurch”. Mr Foster reiterated that work towards a new location for the headquarters would continue.

In addition, Gavin Newlands, the SNP’s shadow spokesperson for transport, expressed disappointment at the decision to delay the reforms. He argued that instead of having a long-term approach, “we have a piecemeal, stop-start process that will take years, if not decades, to achieve real change”. Mr Newlands also highlighted that ScotRail had returned to public ownership and asked the government if it would use the smaller legislation it did bring forward to devolve Network Rail to Scotland. Mr Foster said that the government would not devolve responsibility for rail infrastructure and repeated that the government would “get on with the many reforms we can make without primary legislation”.

Local politicians for some of the locations which had bid to host the headquarters of Great British Rail have criticised the government’s decision. For example, South Yorkshire’s Labour mayor, Oliver Coppard, said that he was “shocked the government would ask us to invest so much time, effort and energy […] then simply pull the project with no notice, warning or communication”.

Some industry figures have also expressed concerns about the decision. Andy Bagnall, the chief executive of the industry body Rail Partners, said that the delay was disappointing. However, he also said that he looked forward to working with the government to progress reform. Chief executive of the Railway Industry Association, Darren Caplan, said that the announcement had led to “a real concern that this delay will lead to a hiatus in work, hitting confidence and certainty in what are already difficult economic circumstances”.

3.    Northern Powerhouse Rail

3.1 Background

Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) is a programme of strategic rail investments designed to improve connectivity between cities and towns in the north of England. The idea of better east–west connectivity by rail has been a subject of debate for a number of years. In October 2014, the coalition government backed proposals for High Speed 3 (HS3)—a high-speed rail link between northern cities—to be developed. However, these plans later evolved beyond HS3 to encompass a wider network of rail connection between northern cities.

Since 2015, proposals have come together around the idea of the ‘northern powerhouse’, the government’s vision for a “super-connected, globally competitive northern economy”. In 2015, the region’s sub-national transport body and the coalition government set out their vision for NPR. Since then, successive governments have continued to support and fund the programme.

In 2019, the Conservative Party’s manifesto committed to “build Northern Powerhouse Rail between Leeds and Manchester and then focus on Liverpool, Tees Valley, Hull, Sheffield and Newcastle”. However, decisions about the future of the project became part of a wider debate about the future of HS2 (a project which aims to create high-speed rail links between London and major Northern cities).

In February 2020, the then prime minister, Boris Johnson, confirmed that his government would proceed with NPR and HS2. To decide how to phase these and other rail projects in the north and the midlands, his government said it would develop an integrated rail plan which would be informed by an assessment of the region’s rail needs by the National Infrastructure Commission.

In November 2021, the government said it would proceed with a core NPR network between Liverpool and York as part of its ‘Integrated Rail Plan for the North and the Midlands’. This network would consist of a new high-speed line between Warrington, Manchester and Yorkshire, ending near Marsden, and upgrades to existing rail lines and some stations for the remainder of the route. In the integrated rail plan, the government outlined that the work would be delivered in phases and estimated that it would cost £17.2bn (in 2019 prices).

3.2 Recent developments

In the 2022 autumn statement, the government, led by Rishi Sunak, recommitted to NPR:

The autumn statement recommits to the government’s transformative growth plans for our railways. These include East West Rail, core Northern Powerhouse Rail, and High Speed 2 to Manchester. These will provide fast, more reliable services and connect people to new job opportunities.

Recent press reports have also noted concerns with rail services in the north of England. A BBC News article said that rail services in the region had been severely disrupted in recent months due to strikes and cancellations. It highlighted that members of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership had written to the transport secretary warning that rail services could “collapse into utter chaos” by January 2023 without government action.

Juergen Maier, former chief executive of Siemens UK and vice chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said that that government had failed to “use the levers only it can pull” to fix the issues. The government has agreed that the current situation is “unacceptable”. It also said that it was “investing billions” in northern transport and working closely with train operators to resolve problems around the driver recruitment.

4.    Read more

Cover image from Freepik.