Labour’s ongoing policy review will consider proposals, contained in a union-backed report published today, to return Britain’s railways to public ownership. Rebuilding Rail, produced by the think tank Transport for Quality of Life, outlines a comprehensive plan for renationalisation nearly twenty years after the Major government began to sell off elements of British Rail in 1993.
Sponsored by Aslef, RMT, TSSA and Unite, the report reflects a “widespread concern” that “we are not getting good value from the substantial sums of public money that are invested in the railways every year” – a cost reckoned to have doubled, possibly tripled, since privatisation.
“Britain has Europe’s highest commuter fares for both day returns and season tickets”, the authors note. “Ticket purchase is excessively complex. When things go wrong, there is a lack of clear accountability.”
Privatisation “has resulted in lost opportunities to expand rail freight”, while “the UK’s once successful rail manufacturing industry has been almost destroyed.”
The report argues for the acquisition of current rail franchises as they come up for renewal, the priority acquisition of the mainline routes with a view to creating a strong ‘flagship brand’ a la British Rail’s InterCity services, a train operations role for a nationalised and reformed Network Rail, a centrally-planned procurement programme for rolling stock and a greatly expanded role for railfreight.
To these ends, it identifies:
“…the need for a ‘guiding mind’ to ensure that services, infrastructure and rolling stock are managed and developed in an integrated and consistent way…This ‘guiding mind’ body, which we term ‘GB Rail’, would provide a single railway entity for a national Government to deal with. Because it would have an overview of the whole railway, it would be able to achieve efficiencies that are not currently possible.”
Furthermore, the authors of today’s report go into some detail in outlining steps that Labour ought to take immediately to allow for an effective nationalisation process once the party is again in government:
“A Labour Party that was committed to reform of the railways could take some important steps now, in preparation for action as a future government.
These include stating that no new franchises will be signed under a Labour government; stating that an incoming Labour government would review all existing franchises to assess whether tax-payers and fare-payers would receive better value-for-money from an immediate buy-out of certain franchises; and arguing now for break-points in all longer franchises let under the current government, to allow for review including termination.”
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• The railways: Yet another broken market in the UK 19 August 2011
• How the government could keep train fares down 16 August 2011
There appears to be a genuine convergence between Labour’s own thinking and the report’s proposals. According to the Guardian, the party “is also developing plans to hand far greater control over local and regional services to a string of new transport authorities in the regions that would have wide-ranging freedom to run services according to local needs” – another issue dealt with at length by Rebuilding Rail.
Labour’s transport spokesperson, Maria Eagle, has already welcomed the report as putting forward a “coherent case for reform”. The possibility of a return to public ownership was mooted last year by Ed Miliband: in a speech to the TUC, he opined that Labour needed “to look at all the options for a way forward for rail services – mutual options, public options and private options.”
The privatisation of the railways has meant two decades of fiscal cataclysm, grotesquely inflated fares and repeated failures to deliver an adequate service. If Labour are serious about adopting Rebuilding Rail’s proposals as policy, it’ll be a serious bid for millions of commuter votes nationwide.