Gearing up! Great British Railways

After an eighteen-month delay, May saw the long-awaited publication of the Williams-Shapps plan for rail, detailing the proposed approach to making the railways central to a more integrated and modern public transport system. The most significant change is the announcement of the plan to have a central body – the newly formed Great British Railways – which will not only own the infrastructure, but also receive the fare revenue, run and plan the network, and set most of the timetables and pricing.

The Williams-Shapps plan is a really point of change for the rail sector and, whilst it will take some time before we fully understand all of the implications this new model will bring, it is notable that it will build on Andrew Haines’ initiative of ‘putting passengers first’ introduced to Network Rail after his arrival in 2018. The new plan will continue to ensure that passengers needs are put at the centre of the new system.

The plan also recognises the critical role infrastructure will need to play in the government’s levelling up agenda, particularly when it comes to addressing the regional economic, environmental, and social challenges the UK faces. In addition to the formation of Great British Railways, the plan set out a further ten targets to deliver. To achieve these, organisations and the sector will need to ensure that it is setting itself up for success by investing appropriately during the transitional period in their transformation programmes.

As we know, organisational change can often present real challenges, particularly when it comes to a merger (or in this case the bringing together of public bodies under one organisation). Setting off on the right foot is therefore critical. The purpose, vision and strategy needs to be developed early on with a clear focus on the outcomes, in this case, what Great British Railways want to deliver. This should be worked through with the existing organisations upfront to ensure alignment throughout the process, rather than waiting until 2024 when Great British Railways officially comes into being. It must also be aligned with the supply chain and appropriately incentivised.

Any change has the potential to unsettle the supply chain especially given the complexity of the current infrastructure horizon as it recovers from the pandemic. This means working through the details of the setup sooner rather than later, and clear communication will be key to avoid costly misunderstandings.

The organisational design and development will need to overcome the challenge of aligning the various cultures and functions at the DfT, Network Rail and the Rail Delivery Group. This integration will be critical for Great British Railways, as conflicting voices could create confusion when it comes to market for its Passenger Services Contracts. Talking openly about why conflicts could arise and investing in a behaviour change management programme will be needed to dovetail with the functional setup of the target operating model.

The setup and the design of Great British Railways’ governance structure will also need to be carefully thought through to accommodate complex groups of stakeholders and their needs, including:

  • Setting up new national and regional governance structures
  • Those stakeholder groups external to Great British Railways
  • Structuring the integration enabling different functions to smoothly transition from the old to the new
  • Allowing innovation to come in from the private sector to ensure there is a balance between standardisation and local technical requirements
  • Designing, attracting, recruiting a diverse workforce, and having a plan in place for retention. This is particularly important for delivery digitalisation.

As Andrew Haines did at Network Rail with the devolution of power back into the regions, Great British Railways need to continue this drive, to ensure each region is empowered to deliver change and focus on the needs of local passengers and freight operators. Bringing together different organisational cultures will also be key to the overall success of the Great British Railways’ agenda. With three years to go until its ‘official’ formation, the New Great British Railways’ will have it’s work cut out to ensure it is ‘match fit’ come 2024. Committing to the transformation early, using the right expertise at the right time, can help the vision become a reality.

If you would like to confidentially discuss how Norman Broadbent Group could help you overcome your business or people challenges, please contact Nick Behan on +44 (0) 0207 484 0106 or via