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The Government has now published the long-awaited plans for rail reform in the ‘Williams-Shapps plan for rail’ which sees the creation of a new public body, Great British Rail (GBR). Although the white paper has been generally well received, the report has been criticised for keeping power and decision-making close to the centre under the control of national government.
Some of the changes set out in the white paper are welcome, as they have the potential to create a more integrated and efficient system by joining up the various train operators and organisational bodies. GBR will take on the role of the ‘Fat Controller’ with responsibility for setting fares and timetables as well as taking a top-down view to planning the network. The plans are an example of national government learning from the devolved administrations, with inspiration drawn from the agreement between Transport for London (TfL) and both the London Underground and bus services, with GBR being accountable to ministers in the same way that TfL is to the Mayor of London (indeed this relationship is cited as a model in the white paper).
The new concessions-based system shares a lot of similarities with the current system of bus franchising, which has a number of advantages for people and places as laid out in this Centre for Cities report. For example, the changes mean that the route frequencies and running hours will be less determined by profit incentives and more in tune with what is needed to provide a more equitable and efficient network. This addresses the often levied accusation that in the previous system, operators exploited local monopolies by hiking up prices during peak hours.
The changes will also make the system easier to adapt to support different ways of working in the aftermath of the pandemic – such as the flexible season tickets that have already been announced as part of the proposed system to be available from June.
These changes are a step in the right direction. That said, although the report promises ‘greater control for local people and places’, decision-making is ultimately kept centrally, ignoring the experience and knowledge of local leaders. The absence of a role for metro mayors, who are elected based on their knowledge of their local areas, in the white paper is striking. This is a tragic missed opportunity for devolution – involving local people and places in consultations is one thing, giving them the power to make their own decisions is another.
Excluding local government directly will also mean that plans to create a joined up transport system by, as the white paper sets out: “integrating rail with other transport services” and ensuring “reliable journeys that are well connected with other transport services” will be more difficult. In its current form, metro mayors – who currently have responsibility for buses through the 2017 Bus Services Act – are to be kept out of the loop in the planning of rail services meaning that different parties are responsible for decisions for each part of the system.
Given that metro mayors are set to have limited powers over trains, they should make the most of the existing powers that they do have, by pushing ahead with bus franchising. More than four years since this power was devolved, there is no excuse for metro mayors to not make the most of this opportunity, with only Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, having actually pressed ahead. Once the other mayors have followed suit and made the most of the things that they can control, they can come back and ask for more power on trains.
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