There is much to like about the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail – but this document also contains a number of contradictions

Back to the future: Transport secretary Grant Schapps launched Plan for Rail at the National Rail Museum in York

It was not quite an out-of-body experience when I found myself dreamily channelling Jeremy Corbyn’s 2019 manifesto. Until with a jolt, I remembered I was in fact reading the Conservative government’s rail White Paper.

Political historians will tell you that the success of the Conservative Party over more than a century is unparalleled anywhere in the democratic world, and that one reason is their ability, seamlessly and shamelessly, to genuinely believe on a given day the opposite of what they believed the day before, when circumstances require them to do so.

Here it is not simply the volte-face that is astonishing, it is the comprehensive demolition of that which had been held sacred for more than a quarter of a century.

The government is “ending the fragmentation of the past”, the “escalations in cost, gold-plating and over-specification that have occurred since privatisation”.

Sorry? They created all this, and in the teeth of opposition at the time from the industry and most politicians, including many of their own backbenchers. But that was then and this is now.

The document is astonishing in another way, and a good way. There is a real sense of ambition, and many of the calls people like me have dutifully made over the years, such as for simpler fares, better integration between rail and other transport modes, and short in-fill electrification, are suddenly being promised.

It is welcome that the last rites have been read over franchising, though with the government now collecting the farebox, they will need a mechanism to ensure the operators actually do collect the fares. London Buses, where the concession model already applies, suggests this is not a great priority for operators.

The White Paper even pledges, to my delight, that “there will be fewer annoying and repetitious recorded announcements” on trains. Hear it, cut it, sorted. This has been a particular bugbear of mine for years. The announcements on London Overground that the last door of the carriage will not open at the next stop, is made three times, including once when the train is already pulling out of the station. As for the one directing people to examine the safety card at the end of the carriage; have you ever seen anyone actually get up to read these things? And finally, what about the one reminding you that you are in a quiet carriage? If only!

Even more joyfully, we are promised the end of ironing board seats such as those to be found on Thameslink trains, and a new emphasis on what the passenger might actually want in terms of an on-board experience. There is a recognition that making it easier to carry bikes on trains, particularly on tourist routes, is a good idea. Can we perhaps also expect the return of catering facilities on medium distance trains such as those from Lewes to London (I declare an interest)?

So the ambition is undoubtedly there (with one major exception which I will return to). The question is: can it be delivered?

Let us turn first to the new giant of the tracks, Great British Railways. It is not a good name, and invites satirical attack. And names are important. Some of us ruefully recall the distinctly uncatchy Social and Liberal Democrats. Presumably the government did not feel able to resurrect British Rail or British Railways so came up with this grandiose alternative, conjuring up an image of John Bull in a Union Jack waistcoat. The name hints at a narrow English nationalism. If they are to be believed, the Scottish and Welsh governments were not consulted about the name, or anything much else in the White Paper. And I hope we are not going to waste a fortune repainting every train.

The government is also at pains to assert that what is being created is not simply Network Rail Plus, though to many of us, that is precisely what it seems to be

The government is also at pains to assert that what is being created is not simply Network Rail Plus, though to many of us, that is precisely what it seems to be. I am in no doubt that the vision of a new passenger-centred organisation (and thank goodness we seem to be back to passengers rather than customers) is one shared by Sir Peter Hendy and Andrew Haines, the impressive pair leading Network Rail. They may be ready for change, and indeed have already started down that track, but the bulk of the employees of GBR, as I suppose we will have to get used to calling it, will be the existing middle management tiers of Network Rail who do not have that same vision, middle management disparagingly called by some in the industry Network Rail’s permafrost.

Then there are the contradictions. In contradiction one, the government rightly says it wants more transparency and accountability for the industry. Yet they have chosen not to recreate something independent like the Strategic Rail Authority, which seemed to have been the preferred Department for Transport option until No 10 got involved, but instead to build on Network Rail. This to a large extent makes GBR judge and jury in its own court, and with far more clout than the emaciated bunch of private sector train operators with whom they will be dealing.

The government’s answer to this is to beef up the Office of Rail and Road, and I suppose that might work, though a more likely outcome down the line, if GBR proves to be unresponsive or inefficient, will be for ministers and civil servants to begin to micro-manage, just as happened in the old days of British Rail. They won’t be able to resist. I note the White Paper allocates considerable reserve powers to the secretary of state.

Contradiction two relates to a specific interface between GBR and the train operators, namely the issue of delay attribution. The White Paper is coruscating about the bureaucracy involved in deciding whether Network Rail or a train operator is responsible for any particular delay, with, it seems, 400 employees busy just doing this. We are even regaled with a dispute about who should carry the can for a pheasant on the line. It seems Network Rail is allocated big birds, and the operators small ones, and nobody was quite sure into which category the pheasant fell.

So when the Williams-Shapps paper (another silly name – I mean, they are hardly Lennon-McCartney) says that “the cottage industry of costly commercial disputes over delay attribution will end”, a cheer goes up. But hold on. The White Paper also promises that train operators will be set “demanding standards” for outcomes on punctuality and reliability, and will be penalised if they fall short. It will be still be in the interests of GBR and the train operators to blame each other for delays. Delay attribution is going to continue, whatever the White Paper says.

Contradiction three concerns complexity within the system. On the one hand, we are promised a greatly simplified operation, while on the other, the government is looking for “much closer collaboration and joint working with local leaders”. Personally, I think devolving some responsibilities to elected mayors or local transport bodies is sensible, but localism implies divergence and tailoring solutions to local circumstances, the opposite of simplification. Indeed, the White Paper confirms that bespoke powers to award contracts and set fares will remain with those areas already exercising that freedom, namely Scotland, Wales, London, Merseyside and Tyne and Wear, and will be extended to other areas too.

Contradiction four in fact relates to fares. Commitment 35 in the White Paper is just four words long: “Fares will be simplified.” Now it is certainly right to rationalise these. There are, after all, as many individual network fares as there are people in the country. But while GBR will set most fares, we are told, there will be “more commercial freedom, particularly on long-distance routes”.

The White Paper also says that “we will end the uncertainty about whether you are travelling with the right train company”. This sounds superficially fine, but does that mean the cost of travelling from Victoria to Gatwick will come down to the Southern price, or rise to the Gatwick Express price? Does it really mean that the cost of travelling from London Euston to Birmingham will be the same, irrespective of whether you are on a fast inter-city train or a slow stopper?

It is on the subject of fares that the White Paper is at its least convincing, yet the fare structure in place will be crucial to attracting people back on board

In fact it is on the subject of fares that the White Paper is at its least convincing, yet the fare structure in place will be crucial to attracting people back on board. The proposed mechanisms are welcome – an extension to Pay As You Go, and the emphasis on digital tickets and contactless payment, but where are the wholesale changes necessary to update the hopelessly out of date fare structure?

One welcome development is the creation of a new flexi-season ticket, or more accurately a carnet, offering as it will eight journeys within 28 days at a discounted price. But what discount exactly?

The government’s press release quotes big discounts against the peak day return, but that is hardly the point. The rationale behind the introduction of what in effect will be a two or three-day season ticket is to accept the new reality that five-day working in the office is largely dead. It was not to offer discounts on peak day returns.

We do not know whether the new flexi arrangement will in all cases offer a discount against a weekly season for those commuting three days a week. It needs to.

Still, at least this is a step in the right direction, but a wholesale updating of fares it is not. I detect the dead hand of the Treasury, stifling the introduction of single leg pricing and other necessary innovations. But they will have to come if the other changes being made are to be a success. A new battle for fares reform starts here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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