R936 - Chasing shadows will fail

In the last issue, Wolmar raised a question that deserves addressing, after he’d spent time at RAIL LIVE in June with Network Rail critics fearful that rebadged as Great British Railways (GBR) it will be arrogant and uncontrollable.

While conceding “quite a lot of optimism”, Wolmar also reported an “overriding fear that NR would be so dominant it would not be able to be challenged.” It’s the same old grumble about NR behaving like a 1,000-pound gorilla which “sits where it damned well pleases”.

It’s a legitimate question. I believe things have changed significantly however - if not yet enough - and we must be wary of that other animal argument: giving a dog a bad name!

NR is a very different beast today to that of even a year ago, let alone five or ten. Even NR Chairman Sir Peter Hendy CBE keeps repeating that he also doesn’t want the old NR the critics fret about. The fact that NR hasn’t done some things well (and, honestly, some things pretty badly) is no argument for not letting it do what is the right thing now. Babies, bath water…

The ‘gorilla’ argument is also exasperating because those who carp about GBR’s potential dominance are often the same folk who complain about fragmentation, separation of wheel and rail, lack of leadership, failure to run our railway as a system and the inability to evolve a coherent national rail strategy.

These are all the problems which we could tackle with far greater speed, impact and success if we have an empowered, specialist body of scale, ‘clout’ and impact. A body drawing together the broken threads, fragmented authority and disconnected system planning that have bedevilled progress. A body which, for the first time since 2004, would critically reunite accountability and responsibility. A body where revenues and costs are, for the first time in a quarter of a century, considered, planned and managed under the same roof: the single till railway.
That body will fail if it is small, disempowered or handcuffed.

The critics Wolmar heard at RAIL LIVE can’t have it both ways. You cannot carp about the lack of control, leadership and empowerment, and then carp when a body of scale is proposed to create those things. Considering that the GBR proposal is supported by DfT (which would lose considerable power) with the support of the Treasury (which will have to make a major leap of faith), those critics need to frame their complaints very carefully if we are to avoid yet worse problems. We cannot allow control at such a watershed moment of crisis and promise to remain in the hands of those who screwed it up so badly in better times.

Williams-Shapps’ Plan requires Andrew Haines to make progress and actually ‘do stuff’. The GBR Transition Team should carpe diem to identify and prioritise changes that can be made relatively quickly to set the railway on the new course outlined by Williams. For the first time in rail history, rail managers can make changes guided only by the aspirations of a plan, rather than hemmed in by legislation.

Remember, around 80% of Williams’ Plan (which enjoys widespread support) can be done without legislation - let’s not waste time discussing where gorillas sit. The railway will never again have such an opportunity.

Yes, there are risks. Could NR become the overbearing, bullying monster its critics fear? This fear should be dealt with in the emerging legislation, which should feature appropriate regulatory oversight, not micromanagement.
If GBRTT does its work well, no Government
is going to legislate away the benefits and advantages the Williams-Shapps Plan was developed to create.

Or we could waste two years specifying, creating and populating a shadow body to sit aside from NR. Who would populate it? It would either have to plunder NR’s pool of skills and abilities, or it would have to recruit from outside the industry. We would then spend even longer getting this inexperienced new body up to speed. The status quo would continue. Despite the risks, I want to see GBRTT working to create the momentum and success required to draw that emerging legislation along with it.

Between the Treasury approving Williams- Shapps and the DfT at its senior level agreeing to give up power, there is - for now - a pathway to reform, which the GBRTT should make use of right now.

This is not risk-free. We will need strong but appropriate (note that word) regulation of NR - in place of today’s micromanagement. And by the way, that tacit Treasury and DfT approval is fragile; there are those in both organisations who would love to wield the knife on the Williams model.

We must not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good - nor must we overlook a clear pragmatic reality. Who is most likely to have the clout to pressurise, cajole and persuade Government and Treasury to keep faith with Williams? A new, nervous shadow authority, or a GBRTT made up of experienced and motivated rail specialists?

Will there be problems? Yes. Will NR/GBR need to be brought back into line on occasions? Most probably. But I know which path… which risks…  I want to take. And they don’t include a Shadow Authority. All the reasons Wolmar puts forward in favour  are individually logical. But taken together, in the current circumstances, they don’t make sense to me. Also, given the urgency, I want civil servants to be doing what they’re good at - drafting the legislation - not micromanaging the railway or spending forever creating a competing shadow authority, which would be a recipe for ‘no change’.

Here’s just one example. DfT seems incapable of accepting that before we electrify across the Pennines, there must be gauge enhancement to create a fully modern 21st century freight route. Not all goods come in at Felixstowe! There is increasing alarm that DfT will fail to pursue gauge enhancement and we’ll electrify the line largely as it is. That would be madness. We are short of post-Brexit HGV drivers. There are mounting climate change and emissions concerns. Government wants an end to diesel lorries by 2040 - and yet it seems blind to the decarbonisation opportunities all this offers rail.

A properly empowered and populated GBR would be more likely to make rapid, informed, agile and timely decisions on such matters. Left to its devices the industry has already come up with two very impressive express freight trains created from upgraded, redundant passenger EMUs - the Class 769-based Orion and Class 321 Swift. We need that kind of agile thinking, confident action and determined progress right across the industry. We will not see that from a continuation of the status quo (the Trans Pennine freight dithering proves that) nor a shadow authority. GBR must seize the day.
Let legislation follow.

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