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Great British Railways plan a ‘political ploy’ to save union, warn rail experts

A ScotRail train near Carnoustie.

Rail passengers in Scotland could suffer under the UK Government’s Great British Railways plan, experts fear.

Independent think tank Rail Reform Group branded the project “a political ploy to support the UK Government’s ‘defend the union’ agenda.”

The group warned the proposals to create a new UK-wide public body will “add complexity, confusion and reduce accountability” over rail services in Scotland.

Holyrood controls the ScotRail franchise. Track infrastructure operator Network Rail is not fully devolved, despite the two working very closely together in Scotland at the insistence of Scottish Government.

UK transport secretary Grant Shapps last week announced plans to absorb Network Rail into the new UK public body.

Great British Railways (GBR) will issue contracts to private firms to run trains in England. It will also set fares and timetables, and sell tickets, including in Scotland.

‘Great English Railways’

The Rail Reform Group is a small, informal group of rail professionals

A group spokesman said Mr Shapps did “not appear to understand” that a disconnect between the trains operator, and track body, was “an England issue”.

He said: “Railways in Scotland, Wales and Merseyside are already operating as much more integrated units with very clear accountability both within the railway industry and politically.

“So the new public body Great British Railways is basically ‘Great English Railways’.

“It seems to be a political ploy to support the Government’s ‘defend the union’ agenda.”

How could plans affect passengers in Scotland?

Great British Railways

Rail consultant David Prescott said Great British Railways could mean missed opportunities for improving Scottish rail services.

The Scottish Government currently funds Network Rail’s operations north of the border. It will run ScotRail from March 2022 after stripping the franchise from Dutch firm Abellio three years early.

The SNP would like to see the management of rail infrastructure fully devolved to Scotland, with the Scottish Government warning it was not consulted on the GBR plans.

Mr Prescott said creating GBR risked jeopardising a “golden opportunity” to create a “vertically integrated” Scottish railway – meaning one company  in charge of rail network infrastructure, timetabling and all train services, removing contractual barriers between the currently different parts of the railway.

Great British Railways

Privatisation of the network after the 1993 Railways Act had meant a move away from that integrated approach, he added.

He said the GBR proposals “make it more difficult to operate a cost effective and responsive railway in Scotland.”

And Shapps’ plan means the central functions of Great British Railways would operate largely in “English mode”.

He added: “Which experience shows makes it difficult to allow Scotland to respond differently to its unique challenges.

“The report indicates Scotland – and other devolved railway administrations in Wales, Merseyside and London – were not really considered.

“It indicates that they have not been involved in developing the proposals.”

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