Redundant sign for Doncaster for GBR HQ lying on floor

UK government splashes over fifty million on Network Rail replacement

Doncaster for GBR HQ did not quite work out as planned Simon Walton

There has been a predictably critical response to the revelation that the UK government has already spent over fifty million pounds (around 60 million euro) on its plan to replace Network Rail with a new overarching management agency for track and trains. An investigation by a specialist media title found that the Department for Transport (DfT) has already spent 52.3 million pounds to establish Great British Railways (GBR), with little more to show for it than a cheesy video with the former transport secretary Grant Shapps, who currently serves as the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero.

There may actually be rather more going on behind the scenes, to establish a body that aims to integrate and streamline the country’s fragmented rail network. However, there is concern that the government’s ambitious plan is costing a treasure chest and delivering a snuff box. The specialist magazine New Civil Engineer recently revealed that spending on the transition has crossed the fifty million pound threshold already, even though there is some doubt that GBR will ever actually move off the drawing board and into its chosen headquarters location of Derby.

A work in progress

Assuming it goes ahead, Great British Railways will absorb the executive powers of Network Rail, and take on an additional organisational role in the operation of train services. The genesis of the reform goes back to the government’s William-Shapps Plan for Rail, unveiled in May 2021. That document was crafted with the purpose of ending the fragmentation that has plagued the UK rail system for decades, with GBR spearheading the integration efforts. It papers over the fact that the political party presently in government presided over the fragmentation in the first place, with their programme of privatisation in the 1990s.

Grant Shapps and Michael Portillo sitting on a bench at Marylebone station in London, ignoring each other
An expensive video. Grant Shapps and Michael Portillo sitting on a bench at Marylebone station in London, ignoring each other, or wondering where the fifty million went.

In a recent Freedom of Information request by New Civil Engineer magazine, it was revealed that the Great British Railways Transition Team (GBRTT) spent a significant portion of the allocated funds between November 2021 and December 2022, amounting to over forty million pounds (46.5 million euro). Additionally, an expenditure of nearly eleven million pounds (almost 13 million euro) was spent commissioning and publishing the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail from September 2018 to May 2021. Exactly how GBR will take over is still, at best, a work in progress.

Open-ended statement

“We remain committed to reforming the rail industry through Great British Railways, which will modernise our network and better deliver for passengers and freight customers, whilst ensuring we deliver value for taxpayers”, said a statement from the DfT, in the wake of the revelations in the press. “The budget for rail transformation is set, and spending is monitored at the program level. The program does not monitor on an aggregated basis time spent solely on establishing Great British Railways. Civil servants working on that also work on other areas.”

That open-ended statement leaves much to be answered. Under the current plans, GBR will take ownership of the railway infrastructure, manage fare revenue collection, operate trains, and oversee network planning. Additionally, GBR will have the authority to set most fares and timetables. Industry insiders say that still leaves a huge administrative headache, over matters such as staff rostering and common operational policies. Derby may be the chosen location for its headquarters, but just how many heads there are on the GBR hydra could be another multi-million pound question.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for and

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