A new Technical Challenge: Great British Railways to shake up UK train travel

June 6, 2021

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps revealed on 20 May 2021 that Britain’s rail industry is soon to be undergoing changes. Among the shake-up is the creation of Great British Railways (GBR), a new public sector body which will take over management of all things railways.

What does this mean?

GBR is set to replace Network Rail, the current manager of all rail infrastructure in Britain. GBR will manage timetables, ticketing, revenue, and contracts with train operators, as well as take on Network Rail’s focus of tracks, signalling systems and management of the UK’s largest train stations.

Essentially, the Transport Secretary wants to make train travel simpler. Among the proposals for how GBR will achieve this include providing more convenient payment methods, making fares and ticketing more straightforward and integrating the railway with other public transport services. 

What's the big picture effect?

Like all big shake-ups, pros and cons have arisen. One of the ways in which the changes are set to simplify consumer engagement is through a GBR app and website. This site is set to be the sole provider for rail ticket and compensation services. While this is positive for consolidating the current system where tickets can be purchased from multiple sources, this will significantly impact other ticketing businesses such as Trainline. Trainline saw its share price fall by 23% following the announcement, which is unsurprising if businesses along these lines may soon be obsolete.

The classic question is what will happen to fares. Typically, government changes to rail services are guaranteed to impact fares, usually with annual headline-hitting price increases. However, the government has not confirmed a fare rise at this stage but have not ruled it out in the future. The reasoning behind this is GBR is set to decide on all fares moving forward, under a government-backed framework, as opposed to the government setting fares itself. This means that GBR will likely take the brunt of future consumer anger over any fare increases. In any case, fare prices are all dependent on the government subsidising train travel: the more the government puts in, the better for the consumer’s purse.

Like everything, the pandemic has hit the railways hard. This has prompted questions as to whether these reforms are actually pandemic induced. The government has spent £12bn on the railways to keep them going during the lockdowns, but even so, passengers are only at 39% of their pre-pandemic levels. Of course, services are still running at lower frequency and capacity, so this figure is not entirely unexpected. However, since the aim of the reforms is to develop services for passengers and increase efficiency, the reforms have been dubbed as essential to improve passenger retention. The government has acknowledged that increasing fares during the pandemic recovery would likely deter greater numbers of passengers, due to the fact many now work from home and the recent rise in unemployment. And so attempting to recover the deficit from the government’s annual £4bn subsidy by increasing fares would do nothing to raise the fall in passengers.

There is still much uncertainty to address before these reforms take place, particularly in relation to transport devolution in Scotland and Wales. Neither nation has been consulted about the reforms. So, not only is the government tasked with successfully implementing the plans in England, Scotland and Wales must be afforded a benefit if the reforms are to be a national success and get out of the station at the beginning of the line.

Report written by Evangeline Taylor

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