New rail structure could work - but will it be too bureaucratic?

Paul Geater catching the London train at Ipswich.

Paul Geater has been covering the rail industry in East Anglia since the 1980s. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

I've covered rail stories in East Anglia since the mid-1980s, and I've been passionately interested in the subject since I was a child - so I've followed all the twists and turns of the industry very closely during that time.

The government's new structure does sound quite familiar. Drop the "Great" from the title and what have you got? "British Railways."

Many people have been advocating the return of a nationalised passenger rail industry - and that is what we will have in many ways. The government will decide where trains run, when trains run, and how much we have to pay to use them.

But it isn't that simple. The state won't own the trains - It will pay commercial businesses to run them to the government's specifications. It's a system that many people feel works pretty well in the capital with Transport for London and in some major cities like Greater Manchester and the West Midlands.

If that can be replicated on a national scale, it could be good news. What is a worry is that the national body Great British Railways will become as bureaucratic and cumbersome as British Rail(ways) was.

Over the 50 years of its existence, British Railways effectively managed the decline of the industry. Over the 25 years of the franchise system the number of passengers has doubled. 

The ownership of the railways isn't the only factor in that, but I'm not sure that it should be just dismissed. Decisions made on a local basis have helped improve services.

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Would rail passengers in East Anglia be getting a brand new fleet of trains if the decision had to go right up to the top of a Great British Railways board in London? I doubt it.

But the franchise system was broken before the pandemic came along. Greater Anglia itself was facing problems with the cost of its franchise along with other companies across the country.

A new structure had to be found. This looks like a reasonable, and proven, way of running public transport. But it is a difficult balance to run a system that is both locally responsive - and has the necessary checks you expect from a national structure.