A red signal for Great British Railways: the biggest reform to UK rail in 30 years axed by PM

The largest reform of the UK’s railways since privatisation in the 1990s has been shelved by the government, The Times reports.

The plans were announced by the former Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, in 2021, with the intention of fixing the fragmented nature of the railways.

However, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak “doesn’t see rail as a priority.”

A new body, called Great British Railways, was planned to supersede the current system of franchised operations by the mid-2020s.

The railways were privatised from the state-run British Rail in the 1990s by John Major, a decision that is widely regarded as a failure.

The current system relies on private companies, contracted by the government, to run services on most routes.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the franchise system collapsed due to the lack of passengers, forcing the UK government to pump over £10bn into the rail industry, propping up the Train Operating Companies.

The Williams–Shapps Rail Review, published in 2021, recommended several changes to the UK railways.

The formation of Great British Railways would have seen the ownership of most of the UK’s rail infrastructure transferred from Network Rail to the new company.

The DfT spokesperson said: “The Government remains fully committed to reforming our railways and will introduce legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows, having already taken numerous steps towards reform.”

 A government source said: “The Government is committed to rail reform through the creation of Great British Railways and launched its headquarters in Derby just over a month ago.

“Our programme of reform will unlock passenger benefits which we are already delivering, including workforce reform, roll out of contactless payment and fares reform.

“No decisions have been made on legislation in the fourth session of this parliament.”

GBR would’ve also had the powers to set timetables and fares, in what was slated to ensure passengers get better value for their travel, along with more reliable services.

Just last week, train operating company TransPennine Express had its contract stripped due to a period of poor performance, with the service being taken over by an operator of last resort, effectively re-nationalising the service.

However, Transport Secretary Mark Harper announced in February that Derby would be the HQ of GBR, saying it’s “the heart of Great Britain’s rail industry”. This makes it unclear how long this U-turn has been in the making.

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