DEBATE: Can Great British Railways deliver?

Henry Hill and Emma Revell

May 20, 2021

Henry Hill, news editor at ConservativeHome, argues YES

The broad outline of Grant Shapps’ plan to overhaul the railways is a good one.

It starts from a sensible proposition: acknowledging that we have a mixed private/public network, and that since that isn’t going to change, we might as well ensure both sides are pulling their weight.

On the private side, that means continuing to ensure that the increases in passenger numbers we’ve seen since ‘privatisation’ in the 1990s continue, and that we don’t see a slide back to the quality of service witnessed under British Rail.

But rather than hiding the State’s role in the shadows, under the deliberately opaque brand of Network Rail, the Government has recognised that this too can be celebrated.

It was Shapps’ words about the railways being “branded as a single service” where this idea’s potential could really lie.

For all its failures as an operator, British Rail was really good at branding. Its uniform train livery was part of the furniture for the generation who grew up with them, and the striking ‘double arrow’ logo remains national shorthand for the railways to this day.

Like several of the other nationalised ‘British X’ industries, it served as a binding agent for the United Kingdom in a way that wasn’t adequately compensated for by those who, for sound economic reasons, dismantled them.

There is no compelling need for companies which have won short-term passenger rail franchises to put their corporate logo on the side of the train. They’re seldom in direct competition with one another, and the designs seldom garner much public affection save for when they explicitly borrow from the past, as the GWR do today.

In his speech to the Commons, Shapps cited the example of Transport for London, whose services sport distinct liveries which are part of the capital’s character. There is no reason the Government couldn’t do the same on a national level.

The alternative is not the genuinely, vertically-integrated private system of the pre-War golden age, but merely the British state doing the lifting without getting the credit. And if we want to make a positive case for the Union, the British state needs to do them, do them well, and be seen to do so.

Emma Revell, Head of Public Affairs at the Institute of Economic Affairs, argues NO

Great British Railways. It sounds more like a 12-part BBC Four series presented by Michael Portillo than a bold new offering for commuters and other rail passengers but that is the government’s solution to the precarious situation the railways have found themselves in.

Yes, everyone has a horror story about using the train, especially if you were using it to commute into a major city on a daily basis pre-pandemic. There’s no wonder it has come out as one of the things people are least looking forward to about the world returning to normal. But overall, the figures don’t lie.

Open access operators consistently bank the highest passenger satisfaction scores and ticket prices are at their most competitive on routes where multiple providers are able to operate.

Poor performance is often the result of inadequate track and signal maintenance, something the government is already responsible for, and not the fault of private train operators.

You may argue government deserves the credit for the work it is doing but I’d rather we asked why the state is doing it at all.

Many of the problems with our current system stem from the piecemeal privatisation of the 1990s. We need to go further and do the job properly rather than rowing back from it.

Service levels should be decided by the operators, not state diktat, and if government wants to support unviable routes for political purposes it can enter the market as an alternative provider.


Written by Henry Hill and Emma Revell

Henry Hill is the News Editor of ConservativeHome and Emma Revell is the Head of Public Affairs at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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