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Draft rail reform bill published ‘fittingly late’, Labour says



A draft bill to reform Britain’s railway has been published by the government – derided by Labour as “fittingly late” and with no prospect of becoming law.

The bill, which can go before MPs for scrutiny but will not be put forward for legislation before the election, theoretically paves the way for an independent Great British Railways body to oversee both the railway infrastructure and train services.

The Department for Transport said that the new body – first announced under Boris Johnson in 2021 after a review commissioned in 2018 – would make for a simpler, more accountable and more effective rail system.

The transport secretary, Mark Harper, said: “This draft bill demonstrates our commitment to reforming the railways. Working with industry, we will move towards a more modern and financially secure rail network that delivers for passengers for the next 200 years.”

The bill has been published a year after Harper insisted in a keynote annual speech to the rail industry that Downing Street and the Treasury were backing the reforms, despite widespread scepticism.

However, with a general election due this year, it appears unlikely that the 32-page draft bill establishing the integrated rail body will be enacted.

At a separate Rail Industry Association event this week, Patrick McLoughlin, the former Conservative transport secretary, said it was “incredibly disappointing” that the bill remained only in draft form.

Louise Haigh, the shadow transport secretary, said: “It is fitting that the Conservative’s flagship rail reform plan has arrived so late it has no prospect of ever becoming law.

“Years after they promised change, they’ve finally admitted they can’t and won’t fix our broken railways.”

Labour has yet to set out exactly how it will reform the railways, but may well retain some aspects of the bill, including the promised integrated body, as well as bringing train operating contracts into public ownership when they expire.

The Conservatives first commissioned a review into the railway after the chaos and cancellations sparked by a timetable change in May 2018, alongside the financial collapse of key train operating franchises.

The Williams-Shapps review was delayed during Covid but was finally published in 2021 with the pledge to create a new Great British Railways (GBR). A 100-strong “transition team”, GBRTT, was tasked with establishing the body but tussles over policy and Treasury opposition meant that within a year many observers believed it was doomed.

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The team has continued to work on fares reform and other aspects not requiring primary legislation.

Andrew Haines, the chief executive of Network Rail and the GBRTT lead, said: “Passengers, freight customers and communities are crying out for a simpler, better railway and the publication of the draft bill is an important step on that journey.

“Bringing track and train together under a guiding mind is by far the best way to improve the service the railway offers, unlock the economic potential of a growing network and reduce the burden on the taxpayer.”

Rail Partners, an industry body representing train operators and other private firms in rail, said the publication of the draft bill was a “useful step forward”. Its chief executive, Andy Bagnall, said it started “an important process to identify areas of consensus and disagreement between the political parties ahead of a general election”.

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