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Rail Reform Bill – too little too late

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On 20 February, the Government published its Draft Rail Reform Bill. This proposes the creation a new Integrated Rail Body (IRB) that brings together decisions on infrastructure and train operations. The IRB would become Great British Railways (GBR) as proposed in the Williams-Shapps report that was published in May 2021. This report was the result of the Williams review which was established in September 2018. This in turn was the Government response to the May 2018 timetable debacle which highlighted how, in England, strategic decisions about trains and infrastructure only come together at Westminster.

Reaction to this draft Bill has been largely positive as the principle of GBR being a new strategic decision-making body is welcomed throughout the industry. It is common ground that bringing infrastructure and operational decision making together will tackle misaligned incentives which are the root of many of the railway’s problems and the reason why customer needs are not always put first.

Why a draft?

It is not clear why only a draft Bill has been prepared. The official reason is that:

“Given the scale and complexity of the changes being made to the sector, the draft bill will undergo pre-legislative scrutiny to provide parliamentarians and experts across industry the opportunity to review and test the legislation in draft.”

Yet surely the almost three years since GBR was first proposed should have been sufficient time to do this. Moreover, with a general election looming it could now be 2025 or even 2026 before a Rail Reform Bill becomes an Act of Parliament.

This is because this draft Bill is intended to ensure that GBR maximises private sector input by giving it a statutory duty to produce an annual report on private sector involvement. In contrast, the Labour Party’s plan is for an integrated publicly owned railway. Hence an incoming Labour Government would produce its own Rail Reform Bill which would then have to wait its turn in a crowded Parliamentary timetable.


A key aspect of the Williams-Shapps report was its proposal that GBR would produce a ‘Whole Industry Strategic Plan’ (WISP) to identify key strategic priorities for the whole rail network over the next 30 years. Although the first such plan was to be published in 2022, to date no such plan has been published.

Having a WISP addresses a weakness of the current structure that no organisation has the financial, technical, and operational authority to oversee the design, investment, and management of the major changes to track infrastructure and on-train systems required for programmes such as decarbonisation and digital signalling.

Yet, in contrast to the emphasis on private finance, there is no requirement for a WISP in the draft Bill, nor does its impact analysis refer to the need for a whole system technical authority.

Hence, whilst it is good to see proposed legislation to progress the formation of GBR, producing a draft Bill which does not have cross-party consensus adds years to the rail reform timetable. It is also disappointing that the engineering benefits of a whole system technical authority do not now seem to be recognised.

The Draft Rail Reform Bill can be viewed in full at: www.gov.uk/government/publications/draft-rail-reform-bill

Lead image credit: iStockphoto.com

David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEM
David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEMhttp://therailengineer.com

Rolling stock, depots, Scottish and Russian railways

David Shirres joined British Rail in 1968 as a scholarship student and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Sussex University. He has also been awarded a Diploma in Engineering Management by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

His roles in British Rail included Maintenance Assistant at Slade Green, Depot Engineer at Haymarket, Scottish DM&EE Training Engineer and ScotRail Safety Systems Manager.

In 1975, he took a three-year break as a volunteer to manage an irrigation project in Bangladesh.

He retired from Network Rail in 2009 after a 37-year railway career. At that time, he was working on the Airdrie to Bathgate project in a role that included the management of utilities and consents. Prior to that, his roles in the privatised railway included various quality, safety and environmental management posts.

David was appointed Editor of Rail Engineer in January 2017 and, since 2010, has written many articles for the magazine on a wide variety of topics including events in Scotland, rail innovation and Russian Railways. In 2013, the latter gave him an award for being its international journalist of the year.

He is also an active member of the IMechE’s Railway Division, having been Chair and Secretary of its Scottish Centre.


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