Flexible season tickets for a post-pandemic commute are to be launched shortly as the first stage of a major revamp of how Britain’s railways are run.

As had been widely expected, and was already starting to come into effect, the franchise system for the train operating companies (TOC) will be scrapped, and the division between the train companies and the railway infrastructure owner will be abolished.

Great British Railways

A new company, Great British Railways (GBR) will run and plan the network, own the infrastructure, and collect most fare revenue. It will also set most fares and timetables.

This isn’t a return to the monolithic British Rail though, as GBR won’t be operating the trains. Companies, probably the current franchise operators, will bid to run the trains under a concession model similar to how London Overground is run. The train companies will still run the services, but will be paid a basic management fee and won’t be setting fares or timetables.

When designed, there was capacity on the railways for innovative ideas to be tried out, but the massive surge in passenger numbers — which is a success story — also meant that the railways filled up and it became a game of how to cram more services into the existing railways.

At that point, efficiency in running the service becomes critical, and having a separation between the train companies and Network Rail becomes a burden rather than an asset.

The bulk of the impact of the shakeup to create the new GBR will take several years to implement, and even longer to feed through to customers, as it’s more about removing a huge amount of complexity in the back office that tied the railways up in red tape and stifled the innovation that it was intended to promote.

The shakeup will reduce costs, initially in the back-office processes that used to manage the relationship between all the competing companies. Network Rail and the train companies employ, for instance, almost 400 full-time staff, known as “train delay attributors”, to argue with each other about whose fault a delay is.

A perfect example of the complexity is if a train is delayed after hitting a pheasant. Is it a small bird — the train operator covers the cost of the delay, or a large bird, in which case Network Rail covers the cost of the delay?

It’s that sort of back-office complexity that they aim to sweep away.

It is expected that when fully implemented in around 5 years time, the reforms could be saving around £1.5 billion a year, equivalent to 15% of the network’s pre-pandemic fares income. That’s on top of Network Rail’s existing plans to cut costs by some £700 million a year.

It’s not entirely a nationalisation, as Network Rail is already owned by the government, and the trains will still be run by private companies. Great British Railways will remain accountable to Ministers in a similar way that TfL is to the Mayor of London. However, to kill off the stranglehold that the Department for Transport has over the railways at the moment, where the railways can’t sneeze without permission from the DfT, the reforms will give the new company a lot more flexibility to work as it needs without every decision needing ministerial approval.

One layer of complexity that will be new though, is an agreement to give “local leaders” some say over timetables and fares in their area. That’s a welcome addition though, as it takes some of the decision making out of Whitehall and devolves it to the regions where the passengers use the service.


In London and the South East, a new partnership will be established to bring together Great British Railways, TfL and local authorities and businesses to coordinate timetabling and investments and to provide a consistent passenger experience in areas such as accessibility, ticketing and communications.

A national ticketing website

There will be a new brand and identity for the whole system, built upon the double arrow, with national and regional sub-identities. A new GBR website will sell tickets and provide a single point for claiming refunds and compensation for delays.

A London style payment system will also be developed, so people can just turn up and tap to pay for a train journey without buying a ticket in advance, although the cheapest fares will still need booking in advance.

British Rail’s Corporate Identity Manual, 1965

Flexible season tickets

Although most of the changes will take time to arrive, the flexible season ticket will be on sale this summer, with potential savings of hundreds of pounds a year for 2 and 3 day-a-week commuters.

The paperless tickets will allow travel on any 8 days in a 28-day period, with passengers able to tap smartcards or scan mobiles at the station, with no need to select the days of travel in advance.

Tickets will go on sale from 21st June, ready for use on 28th June.

The full Williams-Shapps report can be read here.


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  1. Andrew says:

    Very interesting, but is it April 1st? I can never understand why British rail fares are not fixed and in spite of competition are so expensive.

    • Ben says:

      There is no competition, as far as I’m aware, each company has a monopoly over certain areas and lines, so they can charge whatever they want because there’s nobody getting in the way.

    • ianVisits says:

      There are Open Access Operators that compete with the majors, but the plans didn’t work as originally expected as the tracks filled up with trains far quicker than expected and there simply isn’t enough space for new operators to fit into the railways.

  2. MilesT says:

    There is competition on some destination pairs. London-Exeter, London-Norwich, Lobdon-Milton Keynes-Birmingham for example

  3. Danz says:

    Will have to see more detail in time and also how this effects control of London Underground and TFL services.

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