HomeGovernanceGreat British Railways white paper released

Great British Railways white paper released


The government has published its white paper “Great British Railways – the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail”, based on the Williams Rail Review which started in 2018 but was delayed by a General Election and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Williams Rail Review was commissioned in the aftermath of a chaotic and damaging timetable change in May 2018. In June 2018, LNER, the train operator on the East Coast main line frrm London to the North East and Edinburgh, was taken into public ownership after the franchise holder, Virgin East Coast, handed the keys back.  Northern followed in January 2020.

In its report, the Williams Rail Review identified six key problems:

  • The rail sector too often loses sight of its customers, both passengers and freight;
  • It is missing opportunities to meet the needs of the communities it serves;
  • It is fragmented, and accountabilities are not always clear;
  • The sector lacks clear strategic direction;
  • It needs to become more productive and tackle long-term costs;
  • It struggles to innovate and adapt.

The white paper aims to tackle those problems. In the foreword, written by Keith Williams and Grant Shapps, the current Secretary of State for Transport, they recognise the changes that have come about over the last few years and the challenges that lie ahead.

Keith Williams.

“The chaotic timetable changes three years ago showed all too clearly that the old ways were not working. Then, in March 2020, this Review, conceived after those problems and the failure of the East Coast franchise, found itself dealing with something far bigger: the almost total collapse of passenger demand initially, and a profound challenge to the sector’s operating model as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Before the pandemic, commuters made up 47% of all rail passengers, a further 10% were travelling for business meetings and 5% were shopping. In other words, around two thirds of passengers were using the railways for purposes that now face potentially permanent change.

“Much of the old demand will return. Millions of us, imprisoned in front of flickering screens, yearn for human contact. Employers and businesses know that creativity, collaboration, and deal-making are best done in person.

“Rail freight was heavily impacted at first but has recovered rapidly, demonstrating its agility. But commuting and business travel may never be quite the same again.”

Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail announced, following completion of Williams Review
Industry reactions to Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail

There is no change in the government’s commitment to rail. “This government profoundly believes in the future of the railways,” they state. “Without them, our cities could not function, critical freight connections would be cut off, carbon emissions and pollution would rise, and mobility would fall – not just for the millions of people without cars, but for drivers too, as the roads became clogged.”

“But the current sums being paid to operate and maintain the railways are not sustainable,” the two authors continue. “To truly secure rail’s future, there must be radical change. The railways lack a guiding focus on customers, coherent leadership and strategic direction. They are too fragmented, too complicated, and too expensive to run. Innovation is difficult. Incentives are often perverse. Some working practices have not changed in decades. There must be single-minded efforts to get passengers back. In short, we need somebody in charge.”

Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps announces the Plan for Rail white paper.

In making its proposals for these changes, the white paper makes 62 commitments, broken down into five sections.

The Plan for Rail will integrate the current diverse railway into Great British Railways.

Integrating the railways

To make the railway network into one, cohesive unit, the government will create Great British Railways, a new public body that will run the network in the public interest and will be the single ‘guiding mind’ and leader that the railways currently lack.

Great British Railways will be given the means to think and plan for the longer term, with a national brand and identity to emphasise that the railways are one connected network.

A new organisation, not just a larger version of Network Rail, Great British Railways will be given a binding mandate to have, as its primary focus, serving the interests of passengers, freight customers and taxpayers and growing rail usage. It will also be mandated to increase efficiency and co-operation and government will hold the railways’ leaders accountable for meeting the needs of the customers and communities the network serves.

A 30-year strategy will provide clear, long-term plans for transforming the railways, to strengthen collaboration, unlock efficiencies and incentivise innovation. Great British Railways will be made up of powerful regional divisions, with budgets and delivery held at the local level, that will create partnerships with towns, cities and regions, resulting in greater control over local ticketing, services and stations.

Devolved railways will be strengthened, with closer collaboration with Great British Railways improving services, consistency and co-ordination across the country.

At a local level, community rail partnerships will be empowered to strengthen rail’s social and economic impact, and station management will be integrated within Great British Railways to improve accountability for long-term investment in stations. Opportunities to stimulate local growth, unlock housing and increase social value will be explored.

Transport Focus, the independent watchdog for transport users, will be reformed to become a passenger champion, advising the Secretary of State on passenger priorities. Performance and efficiency will be independently scrutinised by the statutory regulator, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR).

Current safety and security rules will remain in place across the rail network. A consultation will be undertaken to ensure safety roles, rules and standards are appropriate for the future. Cross-sector organisations will be consolidated and integrated to enable the railways to operate more effectively and efficiently, and track access will be overhauled to make the best use of the rail network in the overall public interest.

Replacing franchising

Franchising will be replaced by new Passenger Service Contracts, which will focus operators on meeting passengers’ priorities and will incentivise them to grow rail usage.

Each Passenger Service Contract will be designed to support the needs of passengers and the whole network, as part of an integrated system. They will be different across the network and will not take a one-size-fits-all approach, including on contract length, and their geographic and financial size will reflect local markets and needs.

Operators will have greater commercial freedom on some parts of the network, with revenue-sharing arrangements where appropriate. New open access services will also be explored where spare capacity exists.

Competition for Passenger Service Contracts will be greater than for franchises and Great British Railways will aim to compete all contracts. The government will work with the sector and potential new market entrants to develop and implement these changes. However, if operators fail, the government will be ready to step in and take control where needed.

A new deal for passengers

Easy, frictionless payment options for every journey will be introduced across the network, as will digital tickets, and Pay As You Go journeys will be expanded outside London, to make millions more trips straightforward.

A new Great British Railways website and app will create a personalised travel experience and customer service at stations will be modernised, with one-team working expanded across the network.

Fares will be simplified, with affordable fares and season ticket caps and off-peak services protected.  New flexible season tickets will be introduced, to reflect changing working patterns, and journeys across rail, bus, tram and bike will become seamless in the future. Getting to the station on a bike and taking it on a train will be made easier.

Trains will be made more pleasant to travel on and easier to work aboard. Compensation will be simpler and easier to claim, with a consistent, modern process right across the network. Passengers will receive clear, consistent information before, during and after their journeys and their experiences will be monitored more effectively.

The first robust national accessibility strategy and long-term investment programme will improve inclusion and access for all.

Unleashing the private sector’s potential

The economic and environmental benefits of rail freight will be supported by a new, customer-focused approach, modern track access rights and new safeguards. Operators will take a lead role in improving services and performance by innovating with private partners, including train-leasing companies. Modern contracts will be introduced to increase competition, reduce costs and help to attract private investment for new technologies.

Partnerships with other key infrastructure providers, such as broadband innovators, will help to boost the country’s drive towards a revolution in connectivity and new, locally led innovation schemes will unlock smarter working and support growth.

Local engagement will better support small and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups while contestability across operations will be increased, but sub-contracting will need to deliver real value for money.

Accelerating innovation and modernisation

Electrification of the network will be expanded, and alternative technologies, such as hydrogen and battery power, will help to achieve zero emissions from trains and reduce air pollution. The contribution of the railways to the nation’s green recovery will be strengthened, including through a comprehensive environment plan by 2022 that will establish rail as the backbone of a cleaner future transport system. Energy efficiency, renewable power production, tree-planting and other green initiatives across the rail estate will be accelerated. Long-term investment in climate resilience will be prioritised, supported by smarter forecasting, planning and technology.

An ‘open by default’ approach to data sharing will better inform journeys, improve transparency and unlock new technology. Research, development and innovation funding will be simplified to make it more outcome focused and to improve collaboration.

Project SPEED (Swift, Pragmatic and Efficient Enhancement Delivery), which was jointly developed by the Department for Transport (DfT) and Network Rail last summer, will accelerate the delivery of improvements, making more efficient results the new normal.

Empowering rail’s people

A sector-wide workforce plan will be developed to assist employers and build system-wide resilience, while a new joined-up, cross-sector training and skills offer will support people at every career stage to develop skills and bring in experience from outside the rail sector.

Diversity across the sector will be improved through the inclusion of stretching measures in contracts to actively promote and increase recruitment and retention of a diverse workforce.

Comprehensive data on productivity and pay will be collected and published by ORR, which will report on the data and compare it with that of other sectors and labour markets.

Golden era

The two authors of this Plan for Rail sum up their plans at the end of their foreword.

Grant Shapps MP, Transport Secretary.

“Great British Railways will secure significant efficiencies. Today’s railways are a maze of agreements between hundreds of different parties, drawn up and policed by battalions of lawyers and consultants, including an entire staff dedicated to arguing about who is at fault for each delayed train. Change is slow and comes by painstaking negotiation.

“In the new world, that cannot work. Under single national leadership, our railways will be more agile: able to react quicker, spot opportunities, make common-sense choices, and use the kind of operational flexibilities normal in most organisations, but difficult or impossible in the current contractual spider’s web.

“A simpler, more integrated structure will cut duplication, increase Great British Railways’ purchasing power and economies of scale, and make it easier and cheaper to plan maintenance, renewals and upgrades.

“These and other efficiencies will take time to bear fruit, but after five years it is expected that they could be saving around £1.5 billion a year, equivalent to 15% of the network’s pre-pandemic fares income.

“Great British Railways will be better able to respond quickly to changing demand and lead the railways through the challenges of the post-pandemic world. It seems likely, for instance, that the old pre-9am peaks in demand around our biggest cities will flatten or spread more through the day; and that leisure travel will increase as a share of the whole. Less frequent but longer commutes may become more common. That may mean different service patterns, and changing train interiors to focus on comfort rather than capacity.

“It will definitely mean a new focus on the escalations in cost, gold-plating and over-specification that have occurred since privatisation. And it will definitely need a change of mindset from everybody at all levels, from Ministers, unions and regulators to traincrew and managers. Under this model, the sector will provide fulfilling, high-skilled, flexible and modern career opportunities that attract and support the brightest and the best to flourish, so that the railways’ people also benefit from this new golden era for the railways.”


  1. “Great British Railways will be made up of powerful regional divisions, with budgets and delivery held at the local level,”. I have a suggestion for the names of these regional divisions. Let’s call them Western Region, Southern Region, Eastern Region, London Midland Region, and Scottish Region.


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