Competition to find Great British Railways headquarters

Freight heritage could be a deciding factor in the location of Great British Railways headquarters. The UK government has launched a public competition to find a community to host the new overarching management agency. There are already bid considerations from locations with a strong railway background, particularly in the freight sector. The intention is that the new agency will take over much of the oversight of the UK network at some point in 2023.

Announced just a few days after the launch of the ‘levelling up agenda’, there are high hopes that the government competition to find a headquarters location for Great British Railways will favour a north of England community. There is speculation already that the combination of rail freight heritage and economic recovery will make a compelling case. Although lampooned as ‘government by reality TV’, the field of contenders is expected to come from all over the country, and the list of entrants will be a lengthy one, before the closing date just one month from now.

Shortlist by May

Launched with a filmed presentation that is unlikely to feature in the next BAFTA awards, UK transport secretary Grant Shapps is joined by politician turned TV star Michael Portillo to announce the competition. “Our railways have kept this country moving for almost 200 years”, said Shapps. “It’s time to kickstart a new age that will shape our network for the next 200. I’m calling on people across the country to make the case for why the true home of the railways is on your doorstep.”

Locations across the country with strong historical links to the railway are encouraged to make the case for why they should be the new home of GBR, says the Department for Transport. That opens the door for communities once crucial to the development of the railway to stake their claim. The competition plan is for the GBR transition team to shortlist the best applications in May, after which a public vote will help determine the winning location.

Railway land could be site of any building

Although not officially connected to the UK government Levelling Up agenda to economically invigorate the north of England, there are strong contenders in the region, with demonstrable links to the rail freight sector. Among them are communities on the East Coast Main Line, which are familiar to the sector. Notable among them might be Doncaster, where the vast engineering facilities and locomotive works lie largely intact, but somewhat underused compared with their mid-1930s heyday. A number of rail freight operators have operational bases established in the town. There is also nearby Darlington, where the original engineering site has been significantly redeveloped.

Bids are anticipated from communities to the west as well. Derby, with a blossoming railway technology and manufacturing sector is expected to bid. Also, the city of Sheffield will be a contender. The South Yorkshire city was recently named as one of a handful of economically disadvantaged communities set to benefit from the first tranche of ‘Levelling Up’ funding. If the city was a successful bidder, the largely abandoned Tinsley Marshalling Yard could be a site for any headquarters building.

No repeat of naming controversy

Elsewhere, places synonymous with railway development are anticipated among the bidders. Crewe, which was a tiny agricultural hamlet before a railway works was established there, is well placed. The community will be the junction of the West Coast Main Line and the HS2 project, putting it in even easier reach of London. There is also Swindon, between London and Bristol, which shares a similar development history, having grown on the back of the vast integrated Great Western Railway works established in the nineteenth-century.

The commitment to establish Great British Railways was made in May 2021 as part of the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, which outlined sweeping reforms. Towns and cities outside of London will be encouraged to demonstrate a rich railway heritage, strong links to the national network and public support for the selected location.

The outcome of any public vote will not be binding on the Department for Transport – so there is no danger of the new headquarters becoming Trainy McTrainface House. Also, while there is a commitment for the headquarters to be outside London, it is of note that the promotional video was shot at Marylebone – which just happens to be adjacent to the London location of the original British Railways headquarters. The entry deadline is 16 March.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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