On the 25th of April 2024, the Labour Party published a document called Get Britain Moving: Labour’s Plans to Fix Britain’s Railways. The document was a finalised policy brief, setting out the party’s already-announced plans to bring the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) under public control.  

 

The stated objective of this rail policy is to ensure that Britain’s railways are reliable, affordable, efficient, high quality, accessible and safe. Labour believes that the railways are currently failing, with unreliable services, unsustainable finances, fragmented governance and a lack of accountability.  

 

To achieve these objectives, Labour plans to establish a new public body called Great British Railways (GBR), which will oversee the management of both rail infrastructure and rail services, and ensure that all aspects of rail operations are integrated and work together. The Secretary of State for Transport will set out GBR’s priorities and hold the organisation to account for its performance, but GBR will operate as independently from Whitehall as possible. There will also be a new consumer watchdog, the Passenger Standards Authority, which will act on passengers’ behalf to ensure railway services act in the public interest.  

 

Labour has set out some practical examples of what they believe will be the benefits of their rail policy. These include a more seamless delay and fare refund system, a more integrated ticketing and fare structure, clear and higher standards for passenger service across the rail network, and better integration with other public transport modes, such as buses and trams. The party hopes to emulate state-run rail operators in other parts of Europe, such as SNCF in France or Renfe in Spain, which run rail infrastructure and services in their respective countries, but allow open access operators to also run rail services, ensuring that competition between operators reduces fares and increases the quality of service.  

 

However, there are two main critiques of Labour’s plans. The first is that the party is building on existing Conservative Party policy. The Conservative Government has already created the Great British Railways Transition Team, which is working to establish Great British Railways and prepare the rail industry for a change in governance structure. Labour states that many of their rail policies are based on the Williams Review, which the Government commissioned. The party has critiqued the government for failing to implement much of the Williams Review, but implementing all of its recommendations was always going to take time. 

 

More importantly, Get Britain Moving doesn’t commit to significant increasing investment in new rail infrastructure. Many of the shortcomings of the rail network Labour has identified are the result of a lack of capacity on the existing rail network, or infrastructure issues such as outdated signalling, overcrowded stations or congested rail junctions. The party may be overselling the benefits of a reorganisation of the railways, while failing to solve the root of the rail network’s issues. 

 

Regardless of the result of the next General Election, it is clear that Britain’s railways will undergo significant reform. The establishment of GBR will result in a more regulated and centrally-controlled railway, providing a clear line of governance but reducing scope for private sector investment and innovation. Labour is keen to make GBR a success, but improving the railways will require effective integration of the existing rail operators and Network Rail under the GBR umbrella, effective cooperation between GBR and devolved transport bodies such as Transport for Greater Manchester, and a significant and sustained investment in rail infrastructure.