Six years of UK rail reform has ‘achieved very little’, say MPs

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The UK government has “achieved very little” during six years of attempted railway reform, MPs have said, concluding that “no one is putting the needs of passengers and taxpayers first”.

The House of Commons cross-party public accounts committee found that repeated promises of a “root and branch” overhaul of the rail system have been stymied by legislative delays and disagreements between government departments. 

MPs also said they had yet to see any evidence that plans for Great British Railways, a new public body intended to oversee services and infrastructure, would actually be any different to previous promises of reform over the past 20 years.

“Meanwhile, no one is putting the needs of passengers and taxpayers first,” said the committee’s report on the ruling Conservative government’s rail programme, released on Monday. 

“Although the department [for transport] claims that improving passenger experiences is at the heart of its reform plans, poor performance persists across the rail network,” it said.

The committee set out to examine long-promised plans for reform of the UK rail network, originally prompted by the system’s collapse in 2018 owing to a chaotic timetable rollout. 

The resulting “Williams rail review” led to a government white paper in 2021, which outlined plans for GBR.

That new body would oversee the highly complex sector, which currently has responsibilities split across different public and private bodies, as well as between the Department for Transport and the Treasury at government level. 

But GBR has yet to be fully established after legislation was set back following a change of prime ministers in autumn 2022, meaning £1.5bn a year in associated cost savings has also been delayed. 

“It has been six years since the department identified the need for a root and branch review of the railway, but it has achieved very little in this time,” the committee said.

The report said legislative delays were only one part of the reason, however, noting that “from the outset” the Treasury and DfT had disagreed about the extent of GBR’s intended responsibilities, including who should set fares in the future. 

It also found that changes to the state’s financial model for the railways, introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic, had resulted in the two ministries holding different priorities. 

While the DfT was aware that it needed to “increase revenues and reduce costs”, said the report, its focus was on managing costs, while revenue now goes directly to the Treasury, along with the risk for any shortfalls.

“This means that the department, train operating companies and HM Treasury have different priorities when making decisions which impact revenue, and the current set-up does not create the right incentives to get the best value for money for taxpayers,” it said.

The report noted that 13.7 per cent of trains were delayed in 2022-23 and 3.8 per cent were cancelled. 

The DfT declined to comment owing to political restrictions during the general election campaign.

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