Transport secretary: Future of British railways uncertain

The transport secretary has refused to confirm the government’s plan for establishing Great British Railways as a “guiding mind” for the rail industry – even though six UK towns and cities are already on the shortlist to become the organisation’s HQ.

Mark Harper was responding to a question from fellow Tory MP Chris Loder during an appearance before the Transport Select Committee on Wednesday.

The creation of Great British Railways was the main recommendation of the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, published in May 2021.

It is intended to be “a single guiding mind that ends the fragmentation of the rail industry and drives benefits and improvements across the network for passengers and freight customers”.

The plan is that it will largely replicating the role of British Rail, which was effectively abolished during privatisation in the 1990s.

Mr Loder asked: “Is it still your plan to fully implement the plan for rail, ie Great British Railways?”

Mr Harper said: It’s very much my plan to achieve the intention behind that idea, which is to get the railways to have a guiding mind behind them, to have a more integrated position between how the different parts of the industry work.

“There are different views about how exactly we achieve that. I wanted to take some time to listen to those alternative views.

“It’s already the case that we’ve got Network Rail and the DfT [Department for Transport] teams working more closely together to look at how you align the business planning between track and train, which is one of the things we need to do, so there’s already a lot of bringing people together, working together under way already.”

Mr Harper said he intended to make a decision “at pace”.

Last month the previous transport secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, told the Transport Select Committee that the planned start for Great British Railways early in 2024 would not be feasible because the legislative time was not available.

Meanwhile senior Labour MP Ben Bradshaw told the transport secretary on Wednesday that the public had the impression “the government as a whole really couldn’t care less about transport in this country”.

Mr Harper responded: “I strongly disagree. It’s very clear from the Autumn Statement and the fact that the chancellor didn’t do what some governments in the distant past have done, raid capital spending to plug gaps.

“The government’s investing in transport very strongly.”

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