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What the draft Rail Reform Bill would mean for engineers

Chris Stokel-Walker

The UK’s railways have been in dire need of an overhaul for years now, with the government repeatedly kicking responsibility down the road since a plan to reform the rail network and how it operates was first floated as part of the Williams Rail Review, first convened in September 2018.

But finally, the brakes have been taken off the train and things are in motion – at least partly. A Draft Rail Reform Bill has proposed creating an Integrated Rail Body, which could be called Great British Railways, that would oversee decisions about infrastructure and train operations. (Even if the current Conservative government does not lead the country following an election planned for later this year, it’s likely that large parts of the Draft Rail Reform Bill will be inherited by a Labour government and enacted.)

The draft bill was published by the Conservative government in February, but has so far received a muted reception. One reason? It seems unlikely that the current proposal would even make it into law before a general election, meaning that the process of parliamentary ping-pong would start again from scratch.

Even if the bill was fast-tracked into law, one 37-year veteran of Network Rail, David Shirres, said the proposals were too little, too late. 

However, Shirres did appear to welcome the idea of bringing infrastructure and operational decision making under one roof. Doing so would “tackle misaligned incentives which are the root of many of the railway’s problems and the reason why customer needs are not always put first,” he wrote for Rail Engineer. 

Yet Shirres also worried about what had been lost in the years-long process of developing the bill through different stages and iterations. One proposal that was sorely missed in the final bill according to the former engineer, but was present in the May 2021 Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, was a Whole Industry Strategic Plan. The WISP, as it was called in the 2021 plan for rail, would identify strategic priorities in the rail network for the coming three decades, and be in charge of enacting them. “It is […] disappointing that the engineering benefits of a whole system technical authority do not now seem to be recognised,” wrote Shirres.

Losing the WISP could have huge knock-on effects on the UK rail network, and more than that, the engineering staff working within it.

“The problem with losing [the WISP] is things become political again,” says Tony Lodge, research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, a centre-right think tank, who wrote a 2022 report on the rail industry. And when it comes to political decision making, choices are often made for the short-term – what will benefit a government in power most in advance of a tricky election? – than the long-term. “The whole point of Great British Rail is, in theory, to remove heavy Department for Transport micromanagement,” says Lodge. 

And going against that plan, and not implementing a WISP, does away with that, and could result in knee-jerk, reactionary responses to political controversies, rather than long-term thinking about what is best for the wider rail network.

The case for a WISP is simple, says Lodge. “It provides certainty of the consistency of projects in the pipeline, which are scheduled for eight years away, five years away, two years away or 15 years away,” he explains. “It’s about having a clearly identifiable funnel of forthcoming works and what government is looking to do.”

The importance of a centralised, apolitical whole-system technical authority is even more important when considering the scale of ambition government has for the rail network in the coming decades. “There is quite a lot of infrastructure enhancement work necessary to deliver anything close to that target,” says Lodge. But knowing how to sequence and structure the rollout of that infrastructure in a logical way to meet the ambitious deadlines in place would be better suited to a WISP, rather than coming under the control of central government.

Lodge points out that recent decisions to U-turn on major rail infrastructure projects, such as the High Speed 2 (HS2) project, by central government make the case for why the original idea for a WISP in an earlier iteration of the national rail plans were so vital to the engineering sector. 

“That was a political decision,” he says. “It was a political decision, taken because of an inflated cost overrun.” But the HS2 brouhaha could become more commonplace – and have an impact on the ability for the rail engineering sector to conduct long-term planning – if the Rail Reform Bill as currently drafted were to enter into force in the coming years.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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