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Rail: at heart, no change [print version]

Dutch national rail subsidiary Abellio took over the East Midlands franchise in 2019. Foreign state ownership of rail is set to continue after the Williams–Shapps report. Photo Workers.

The Williams–Shapps Plan for Rail – a government White Paper – has finally been published. And like too many of Britain’s trains, it arrived very late and was truly underwhelming.

The report carried with it a whiff of past times – Network Rail will be transformed (back?) into something called Great British Railways (GBR) which will remain in the public sector, using British Rail’s famous double arrow symbol in its branding. Rail and wheel will be re-united under GBR as one controlling organisation – now that the dead hand of EU law cannot prevent it.

But nothing fundamental will change. This was underlined within hours of the White Paper being published when First Group announced that it has already secured new rail contracts to run services that look almost identical to the South Western and Transpennine franchises that First Group has already been running. These are services which effectively went bust when Covid-19 arrived, and which the government has been propping up with taxpayers’ money ever since. Going forward, First Group will not have to bear any financial risk – that will be borne by us, the taxpayers.

The message is clear: the government has no intention of reducing the involvement of the private sector in running Britain’s train services. Indeed, it has no intention of even reviewing the way in which the new concession contracts will be structured.

• A longer version of this article is on the web at www.cpbml.org.uk.