The Great British Cover-Up: What Grant Shapps is hiding about the future of the railways

Still image from Grant Shapps' 'Great British Railways Headquarters Competition' video. The colours in the image are dark, suggesting he is having a suspicious phone call on a railway platform.

While everyone’s talking about the Tory leadership contest and RMT industrial action, we’re about to lose our last chance to save Britain’s railway from its most dangerous privatisation project yet.

A government consultation on the new public body Great British Railways– including major changes to legislation – is about to be rushed through without any public awareness. It’s a key part of the government’s secret plan to cut billions in public spending, including a massive destaffing project allegedly involving the closure of every ticket office in England.

Today, we’ve demanded that Grant Shapps extends the 4th August deadline and starts publicly promoting the consultation – in a joint letter with campaign group Bring Back British Rail. The consultation is far too short for a holiday period and has been completely hidden from view by the “National Headquarters Competition for GBR”. If he refuses, the Williams-Shapps Plan will lose even more credibility with the public.

However, this is only the first of the weaknesses in the consultation. The private rail industry has been in backroom talks with the government for months; making vital decisions on all the most important areas affecting passengers.  Most of these areas – such as timetabling, fares, and accessibility – have been exempted from the consultation (2.14) and are being negotiated as part of a market engagement process with train companies. They are now set to be decided without any public input whatsoever.

Screenshot of a Sunday Times headline: Secret plan to close all railway ticket offices as strikes grip Britain
This Sunday Times article was deleted after it went viral. View the archived version here.

Great British Railways and the public-private power struggle:

Beginning in 2018, the purpose of the Williams-Shapps review was to fix the fragmentation that caused the nationwide timetable collapse of that year. The process has concluded that the railway experienced complete market failure; caused by the perverse incentives of private companies within the system.

Consequently, the main commitment of the 2021 Williams-Shapps White Paper was to bring all “critical cross-industry functions” under a new public body, Great British Railways, including: timetable planning, fares and ticketing, open data, and station management. This commitment requires the removal of the operational role of the Rail Delivery Group, which currently controls the National Rail Enquiries ticketing system and many other cross-industry functions – as well as acting as a powerful trade association for private companies.

In October 2021, a secret market engagement process began, to decide the details of the new style of GBR contract – Passenger Service Contracts (PSCs). The Rail Delivery Group simultaneously published their own report on behalf of the private train companies; demanding that GBR should be scaled down to set only “base level requirements” and that train operators should retain most of their critical cross-industry functions, including: “active or leading roles in all three phases of the timetable specification;” key roles in marketing and ticket retailing; maximum autonomy over fare pricing; and the commercial and operational management of stations.

Essential passenger services are now under greater threat than ever, and all the details of these policies have been hidden from public view.

  1. Fare Reform

There has been no proper consultation on rail fare reform for Great British Railways. A major ‘Pay As You Go’ smart-ticketing consultation was held in 2019, but this never reported to the public. Nor was there any consultation behind Great British Railway’s first policy rollout – ‘flexi-tickets’, launched in June 2021. The Department for Transport even ignored their own focus group research, which shows a strongly adverse reaction to the flexi policy they eventually chose – giving just a 5% discount on the price of a daily ticket.

A ‘formal one-year review’ of the flexi-ticket scheme is currently underway, but this is being hidden from the public due to train companies’ demands for commercial confidentiality. For the same reason, the Rail Delivery Group refuses to release any flexi-ticket sales data, despite the scheme being a government policy and fully funded by the taxpayer.

Most shockingly of all, the Rail Delivery Group has been put in charge of implementing a whole new smart ticketing system on behalf of Great British Railways.

2. Accessibility

Disabled people’s equal right to travel has been under threat for years, due to a compromised relationship between government and industry in which they have secretly developed long-term destaffing programs – previously revealed by whistleblowers on this website. The plan to close every ticket office in England is the latest example of this cover-up.

The Williams-Shapps Plan’s proposals for accessibility have never been consulted on, and essential advice from the government’s accessibility advisors has been ignored. The National Disability Strategy was recently declared unlawful by the high court for its failure to properly consult, and it seems that many of the same weaknesses are now being repeated in the Williams-Shapps consultation.

3. Workers’ rights

Currently, Grant Shapps refuses to step in on the strikes, and the blame for the industrial relations crisis has landed on the government. But this does not mean that the private rail industry is any more sympathetic. As reported in The Times, the industry is pushing for ‘minimum service levels’ legislation; which would virtually end the effectiveness of industrial action and trade union negotiating power.

In its lobbying on Passenger Services Contracts, the Rail Delivery Group has said that the industry wants more control over stations, and the development of automation technologies.  One of their central demands is for the new contracts to directly incentivise them to cut costs – which will ensure permanent conflict in industrial relations, with the government continuing to negotiate by proxy.

What happens next?

We are still only scratching the surface of the ‘Great British Cover-Up’ and the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail consultation. The Department for Transport has refused to comment.

It’s vital that we get Grant Shapps to agree to an extension within the next few days, so that passengers, campaigners and trade unions can prepare their responses. Please join us by writing to him at

The private rail industry’s ‘perverse incentives’ have stood in the way of passengers’ rights for much too long. We are now gathering evidence of the industry’s many conflicts of interest, to show that this is the true cause of the crisis in passenger trust – as well as the failure to modernise.

For more information, or to share your comments:

[This page was updated on 03/08/2022 to better reflect changes to the consultation principles in 2018]

5 thoughts on “The Great British Cover-Up: What Grant Shapps is hiding about the future of the railways”

  1. We want a safely run railway with no staff cutting Not a regulated profit for shareholders Retired signaller west coast main line


  2. Due to disability I rely on public transport. However if fares are going to to rise and humans replaced with machines that cannot answer random questions or provide safety assistance my only choice will be not to travel (or use coaches instead of trains if affordability takes priority over speed)


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