Train travel to be overhauled by new body Great British Railways

The way trains and rails are run is set for an overhaul. Credit: PA

Control of trains and track will be brought under a new public sector body named Great British Railways (GBR) as part of sweeping reforms, the Department for Transport has announced.

The organisation will own and manage rail infrastructure, issue contracts to private firms to run trains, set most fares and timetables, and sell tickets.

It will absorb Network Rail in a bid to end the current “blame-game system” between train and track operations when disruption occurs.

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail has been published as a white paper.

ITV News Correspondent Martha Fairlie on the what the sweeping changes mean for passengers

It is based on the recommendations of a review of the industry carried out by former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams following the chaotic introduction of new timetables in May 2018.

The plan was initially due to be published in autumn 2019 but was delayed by the general election and the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “I am a great believer in rail, but for too long passengers have not had the level of service they deserve.

“By creating Great British Railways, and investing in the future of the network, this Government will deliver a rail system the country can be proud of.”

Flexible season tickets will be introduced under the new system. Credit: PA

GBR is not expected to be established until 2023.

Its logo will be an updated version of British Rail’s double arrow. It will be released at a later date.

Many reforms will be brought before the body is launched.

Flexible season tickets will be introduced, offering savings on certain routes for people who travel to work two or three times a week.

These will go on sale on June 21 for use seven days later.

There will also be a “significant roll out” of more pay as you go, contactless and digital ticketing on smartphones, the Department for Transport (DfT) said.

The organisation will issue contracts to private firms to run trains, set most fares and timetables, and sell tickets Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA

The Great British Railway U-turn? ITV News Consumer Editor Chris Choi explains what this all means

Critics may see this as the nearest you'll get to a U-turn on the railway. The party that brought in rail privatisation under John Major today calls it "a quarter century of fragmentation".

What's more, some will see this plan as completing only half the journey - many unions say there should be full re-nationalisation.

Instead, we have a new hybrid of public/private (known as a "concession"). Many will find it all as incomprehensible and splintered as the old franchise system. So, is this really any more than just putting a new badge on the same old problems?

The new system will give the train operators less control, with key decisions made by a new public body to be known as Great British Railways. Don't get the idea that government is stepping away from its belief that private firms should play a big role. In briefings to journalists, the Department for Transport says "there will remain a substantial, and often greater role, for the private sector". Commercial firms will still operate services, the big difference is that the new public body will specify timetables and fares.

Credit: PA

New "Passenger Service Contracts" will vary between different operators, with no standardisation on the level of commercial freedom firms get.

What's more, local leaders will get more say - no doubt bringing in a wider range of approaches.

While much of this may help match services with communities, it introduces complexity to a system the government hoped would be a simplification. Fundamental change has already been forced on this industry by the pandemic, with the old style franchises already shelved.

You'd think the government would want a period of calm to help ease railways out of this very troubled period.

Instead it seems to be throwing down the gauntlet to unions by using phrases such as "Great British Railways will drive significant efficiencies... changing working practices".

Rail franchises were effectively ended when the Government took over the financial liabilities of operators in March 2020 to keep services running amid the collapse in demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic, at a cost of £10 billion.

The emergency agreements will be replaced by passenger service contracts, with GBR contracting private firms to operate trains.

"In the future, we want to run a better, more efficient, passenger-focused railway that runs on time," Grant Shapps tells ITV News.

This concession model is similar to the one used for London Overground and Docklands Light Railway services by Transport for London.

The new body will specify most of the timetables and fares.

Operators will be incentivised to run high-quality services and increase passenger numbers.

Announcing the shake-up, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said said it would offer a "simplified service" for passengers comparing Great British Railways to Thomas the Tank Engine's Fat Controller. Speaking at the Railway Museum in York, Mr Shapps said: "We need a guiding mind, you need to have somebody who says 'ah, this is the whole railway across the country, this is how we're going to develop it, this is how we're going to collect the fares and where we're going to invest'.

"The Fat Controller, or the guiding mind, behind it, that is Great British Railways, and that's what the White Paper today will establish and it will be one single focus in their mind , putting the passenger first to attract people to come and use the railways."

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps on the new 'Fat Controller'

Mr Shapps said Britain’s railways were built to “forge stronger connections” and provide “an affordable, reliable and rapid service”, but passengers have been failed by “years of fragmentation, confusion and over-complication”.

He declared: “That complicated and broken system ends today.”

He added: “Great British Railways marks a new era in the history of our railways.

“It will become a single familiar brand with a bold new vision for passengers – of punctual services, simpler tickets and a modern and green railway that meets the needs of the nation.”

Mr Williams commented: “Our Plan is built around the passenger, with new contracts which prioritise excellent performance and better services, better value fares, and creating clear leadership and real accountability when things go wrong.”

GBR will specify most of the timetables and fares Credit: Ben Birchall/PA

Anthony Smith, chief executive of passenger watchdog Transport Focus, said: “Passengers will welcome this move towards a more accountable and joined-up railway.

“Ultimately what they will care about is whether rail is the best option for them – if it is reliable, efficient and good value.”

Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA), dismissed the plan as “papering over the cracks”.

He said: “A concessions-based model will still see passengers’ and taxpayer money leak out of our industry in the form of dividend payments for the greedy shareholders of the private operators who will hold them.”

ITV News Wales political editor Adrian Masters on what these changes would mean for travellers in Wales:

The UK government’s plans would include rail lines and ticketing in Wales because rail infrastructure is mostly not devolved. It’s not clear, however, how the plans would affect what’s known as the ‘Core Valleys Lines’ which are the responsibility of the Welsh government not the UK government. And ministers in Cardiff are also in charge of who runs the Wales and Border train franchise which is now operated by a not-for-profit organisation ‘Transport for Wales.