The Rail White Paper – some quick reflections…

I haven’t had time to fully digest the UK Gov Rail White Paper…but I thought a few bullets might help summarise my initial response/thoughts (and I will keep updating this):

Here’s the White Paper for ref: Great British Railways: Williams-Shapps plan for rail – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

To start, we should acknowledge, that most of the rail industry in the UK is already nationalised. NR has been in public hands since the demise of Railtrack and has been an expense entry for the DfT since 2015. Fares, timetables and service specification have and are also for the vast majority of services, set by the DfT.

The recent Covid impact has turned most of the ToC franchises into temporary management contracts with DfT (or TfW/WG in Wales and Transport Scotland in Scotland) taking the revenue risk.

To that extent the ideological call for nationalisation is really a little off the mark given the scale of such already in place. I would add that I have no issue with private companies bidding for and operating concessions or management contracts under the proposed new arrangements…called “Passenger Service Contracts”. This relationship with the private sector is how most of the UKs Light Rail systems operate.

In Wales, TfW specified and let the Wales and Borders franchise (with DfT looking over its shoulder); the same applied in Scotland (with less DfT involvement)

However, whilst rail infrastructure decisions and funding are devolved to Scotland, they are not in Wales. This situation has led to decades of underfunding of Wales rail network vs UK. Of the £150Bn referenced in the White Paper across the UK since the mid 1990s, Wales share of the enhancements is perhaps 2%. Plenty of data and evidence, reports (including by Select Committees), etc on this matter which is the fundamental issue facing Wales in respect of rail; here’s a snapshot:

Welsh Rail Infrastructure Investment – Mark Barry (swalesmetroprof.blog)

https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/19482/html

Historical investment in rail infrastructure enhancements [HTML] | GOV.WALES

Wales and the Williams Review – Mark Barry (swalesmetroprof.blog)

Wales and HS2… – Mark Barry (swalesmetroprof.blog)

So, on organisation, yes, it makes sense to formally bring together track and train to remove all those costly bureaucratic interfaces – and to have a more unified thinking mind. This is not rocket science and most in the industry have been calling for this since privatisation! In doing so, bringing revenue risk back onto the governments books and replacing franchises with in effect concessions or management contracts also makes sense.

What is proposed actually formalises what in effect has already happened as a result or Covid….and as stated NR was already nationalised.

However, this thinking and associated funding and control needs to be devolved in Wales with necessary cross border arrangements and protocols (as is the case in many countries with cross border rail services…which is normal). What is proposed for Wales will not address the inequity in rail investment nor will it help the development and thinking re rail strategy and priorities in Wales (which is already quite well developed) by having another London based organisation trying to pull the steering wheel. There are clear needs for common standards and operational alignment in many areas, esp cross border (which is common between many countries around the world). However, strategic rail planning in Wales needs to be led in and by Wales and integrated with other modes and local planning within its Metro programmes. Metro begins | Transport for Wales (trc.cymru)

More generally, transport planning needs to be localised and better integrated with local land use planning and especially bus services (as TfW are beginning to do in Wales). Apart from intercity routes therefore, rail planning needs to be more locally integrated across England as we are tying in Wales. For example the rail industry makes a great play of the ability to buy a ticket between any two points on the network…as if that was of primary importance. In reality it will be far more effective to better integrate local rail and bus services (more like TfL where buses were never de-regulated as they were in the rest of the UK in the 1980s).

For example, how many people want to travel between say Aberdare and Frodsham by train vs say Aberdare and Talbot Green (which requires both rail and bus)! The former ticket exists….the latter not. This is the primary issue Transport for Wales is dealing with… to the extent the White Paper acknowledges this challenge, that is welcome.

There are also some questions. For example, TfW are working hard on long term plans to integrate bus services, fares and ticketing as part of the South Wales Metro…which will come with new branding, apps, website, etc. How does the GB Railways proposal sit alongside the current WG commitments?

A more general challenge which I am not yet convinced the current UK Government will properly address is the need for major mode shift to help deliver our decarbonisation targets. More bluntly, the Climate Emergency requires a significant mode shift from car to Public Transport and Active Travel. This will mean more rail capacity (not just electrification) and ultimately road pricing… or, as I prefer to call it, the reduction in the “road use discount”. I set out the rationale here>> Climate Change, Cars & Challenges – Mark Barry (swalesmetroprof.blog)

This is just a White Paper…..so much still to play out. On a general look, there is much to welcome. However, it still does not address the primary issues from a Welsh perspective and that is a systemic long term lack of enhancement investment. The fact that Welsh Government only gets one mention in the entire 100+ page document is also telling. The use of the expression “devolved authorities” rather than “devolved governments” is also indicative of current Westminster attitudes. The 15% efficiency saving targets also sets some broader expectations.

In Wales, WG & TfW are trying to do much of what is set out in the UK Rail White Paper. However, having rail non-devolved (apart now from the Core Valley Lines) with all major decisions and the purse strings re rail infrastructure made/held in Westminster, is a huge impediment. Wales barely gets half way up page 2 on a list of priorities at Whitehall. So with the all deck chairs being moved around and big new hats to dish out for GB Railways how will Wales’s issues get traction? Can we not just devolve rail powers to Wales first! Please!

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