A blog by Rachel Kelley, Head of Legislation & Policy

13 November 2023

Today, Great British Railways Transition Team (GBRTT) published thirty recommendations for simplifying rail industry rules and processes. These are changes that can help the people planning and operating the railway focus on the needs of customers, as well as giving greater certainty and clarity to the range of different private rail businesses and investors.

Our report is the result of eighteen months of listening and development, during which we spoke to more than 200 stakeholders representing 80 organisations. We are incredibly grateful to each and every one of the experts we spoke to for their time and insight.

Regulatory and contractual rules are important and underpin a surprising number of the most basic railway functions. They control how the railway works together to carry passengers and goods safely and efficiently around the network. They guide decisions on timetabling, on-the-day operations and improving stations and depots. They also create vital protections, setting out key timings, the rights of different parties, compensation and how disagreements get resolved.

At their best, this web of interlinked rules gives everyone – from freight and passenger operators to Network Rail teams – the confidence to go about their work in a safe, efficient and customer-focused manner. But at their worst, they introduce frustrating complexities that drive up administrative costs and can divert skilled professionals into meeting the needs of rules or policies, not the needs of customers.

In critical ways the rules we have work well, but the impact of the pandemic and the resulting changes in passenger travel habits has shown that some of our current systems are not agile or responsive enough to allow the industry to adapt to shifting demands. 

It was in this context that Government commissioned GBRTT to look at the detailed regulatory and contractual rules for our core railway processes, back in the summer of 2022.

The recommendations we have published today are not final decisions. Rather, they form a coherent approach set of changes for Government and other key parties such as the Office of Rail and Road to consider. Taken together, they represent a departure from the current fragmented railway and present a huge opportunity to create a simpler, better railway.

While many of these recommendations can be implemented or pursued independently of the creation of Great British Railways, all support the Government’s plans for a single guiding mind for rail and helping to maximise its benefits for the people and business that use the railway. Options were also developed to fit with devolved arrangements and the railway functions of Scottish and Welsh Governments.

What are we recommending?

Our recommendations come in five different flavours, ranging from the relatively simple to the highly complex:

  • Vision for the railway: Setting long-term direction for how processes can be simpler and better
  • Unlocking: Near term changes to the Access and Management regulations
  • Evolving today’s approach: Near term actions which deliver a better and simpler way of working
  • GBR Approach: Future changes or controls relevant to Great British Railways (GBR), once established as an integrated body
  • Preparing for GBR: Near term action specifically to prepare for a future GBR

I want to dive into a couple of specific near-term recommendations to highlight some areas where we can make a real difference in a short space of time.

Station and depot changes

Today’s consent processes for improving facilities at stations and depots are unnecessarily complicated, expensive and lengthy. It shouldn’t take months to get approval for something as simple as a new bench or works that improve accessibility for disabled people – but often, it does.

Stakeholders tell us that the processes around change frustrate investors, customers and local community groups. They have little control, and the rules present hurdles they have to jump over to get stuff done.

As early steps, we are recommending integrating and modernising three overlapping processes that exist today (Station Proposals for Change, Landlord’s consent, Minor Modification) into a single, simplified industry approach.

We also want to see a modern, online system with simple-to-follow templates. What we’re simplifying is a rather dry, back-end process, but passengers, freight users and taxpayers will see a difference. A quicker, less expensive process has real potential to encourage investment in stations and unlock commercial opportunities.

Improving timetabling

Behind the journey planning apps and websites most passengers use today, a railway timetable is in fact a series of decisions about how best to use the finite capacity of the railway. Which passenger and freight services to prioritise over others? How to balance intensive use by different markets with service reliability and engineering access?

Under today’s rules and ways of working, analysis and planning activities are often reactive, prompted by requests and emerging proposals. Different parties – including the Department for Transport, Office of Rail & Road and Network Rail – take individual decisions about services, access and timetabling using separate criteria and without sharing a single version of the risks and issues.

Our vision is for a more proactive, structured way of managing a service and timetable change programme. We want to see decisions taken once, at the right time, with the right information. This has to be done in a way that’s transparent to funders and operators and allows better engagement with the market, so that the end product better balances the needs of different railway customers.

Our recommendations include some early steps towards this vision, including a change to the regulations that underpin timetabling, allowing the industry to decide on structurally important and strategic timetable paths before the final year. This goal is hard to deliver under today’s rules but making the change will allow major service changes to be worked through in good time with the industry.

Making this change would reduce the chances of a repeat of 2018, with the disruption that followed the introduction of a new timetable. There would also be opportunities to offer greater certainty for operators and investors in the right places, while keeping late-stage flexibility to address changing demands. It would be possible to build the capacity for important growing markets, such as freight, into future timetables and resolve business-critical issues of pathing for open access operators or funders so that they can plan their customer offer and manage cost and revenue.

Moving from recommendations to delivery

Our final recommendations have been provided to the Secretary of State who will take final decisions in the near future.

Delivering simpler, better industry processes, with all the benefits that will bring, will consist of making iterative changes to detailed processes. It will require continued collaboration and co-ordination across the industry.

Because of our unique structure, which includes secondees with deep railway expertise, GBRTT has been able to work with train operators, devolved bodies, infrastructure managers and freight users, alongside dedicated ORR and Government support, to set out a longer-term vision. This was important to us because it will act as a guide as we work together with industry colleagues through a series of bitty and complex changes.

The good news is that work can start now to design and deliver some of our recommendations – including simplifying how change is made at stations, working on the systems involved in delay attribution and making some early changes that can allow earlier decisions when needed to deliver major timetable changes.

We are looking forward to working with industry partners to turn many of these recommendations into reality.

For more information, please get in touch with railwaycommission@gbrtt.co.uk.