Rail 961: Some ideas for Labour

When I first started writing this column in the mid 1990s, it had already become pretty clear that the days of the John Major’s government were numbered. The financial crisis of 1992 when Britain crashed out of the European Rate Mechanism (remember that?) essentially put paid to the Tories’ claim of being a safe pair of hands quite soon after that years’ election and there was every expectation for most of the period leading to the 1997 general election that Labour would triumph.

Therefore many of my early columns focussed on the Labour opposition and its plans for the industry. Many promises were not kept, but that is another story. At least they were relevant and stimulated debate.

In recent times, spending a lot of time analysing Labour’s policies would have been a waste of my precious fortnightly efforts – either there were no such plans or they were too broad such as ‘let’s renationalise the railways’ to be of much interest. In the run up to the 2017 and 2019 elections, Labour did, belatedly, begin to produce some detailed thinking on transport issues, but given the changes that have taken place in the party since the demise of Jeremy Corbyn, there is now a clean slate on which to develop a strategy.

So there is plenty of scope for the party to start thinking about what it can do on the railways and in transport policy more widely.  However, a word of warning is necessary. Recent policy pronouncements from Labour on other aspects of the government’s agenda have been incredibly cautious. The fear of the Daily Mail still pervades the corridors of Labour HQ despite the fact that pandering to the right wing press has never helped the party. Moreover, the right wing press should no longer be held in awe. After all circulations are down dramatically, with papers that once sold millions now counting circulations in the hundreds of thousands.

Therefore my advice to the party – and remember I am a former Parliamentary candidate – is to be brave and in that regard, I offer a few thoughts on what aspects of railway policy the party should focus on. Being bland will not win over any voters and the railways are facing a financial crisis which is going to hoist the subject up the political agenda. Here’s four policy areas on which Labour needs to set out a framework for action

  1. 1. Fares. A couple of issues ago (Rail 959), I set out the idea of Basic Fares. The core concept is that there would be a simple widely publicised fare between any two destinations, which could then be varied in easily explainable way for peak times, first class or whatever. I realise the issue is fantastically complex and my colleague Barry Doe is the great expert on all this, but surely the starting point for Labour could be that the fares system should attract people to use the railways rather than the opposite. Just a quick look at the excellent BRfares.com website demonstrates the madness of the current system. Yet, years – decades even – of talking about fares reform have yielded little apart from a ridiculous campaign earlier this year of special deals on a few random trains.

Labour needs to be innovative here. Just cut through the crap, forget endless consultancies and consultations and just announce a simpler structure based on a Basic Fare. Yes, there may be winners and losers, but crucially the reform should be about getting people on to the railways as part of the overall decarbonisation strategy. That puts the issue into a wider context that must be at the core of any future Labour government’s policy offering.

As for those who argue that this may cost the railways money and therefore require more subsidy, let’s turn an old right wing trope on its head. There is often an argument put out by right wing thinkers that reducing the percentage of tax taken from incomes, notably those at the higher level, will result in an increase in the amount collected. In economics, when applied to price increases, this is called elasticity and it has long been assumed – though never proven – that increasing fares leads to a rise in revenue. Well, let’s turn this on its head. I suspect this is not the case, and the reverse is true. Fares rises reduces the numbers travelling. This will be especially true now that the captive market of season ticket holders has been badly eroded. Therefore, if there is an overall reduction in fares, and, moreover, a clear understanding that the ‘Basic fare’ will be the norm, then I suspect there will be a rise in the fare box.

  1. 2. Operations The model of ‘passenger service contracts’ been promulgated by the Government as the way services will be governed under Great British Railways will simply bring about all the complexity that the new structure is supposed to do away with. This is because the contracting out to private operators will inevitably result in the same sorts of disputes over delays that require the service of some 400 rail office staff – according to the White Paper – at the moment. This whole business of contracting out was developed by the Tory government of the 1990s as a way of stopping industrial action across the board – well that is working well, isn’t it? Labour should just scrap the whole idea, let Great British Railways (perhaps dropping the Great along the way) run the show, integrating operations with infrastructure in order to run the railways in the time honoured and efficient way. Brexit, amusingly, gives the green light to any structure that the government sees fit to implement.
  2. 3. Infrastructure Two big issues here. First of all, the outrageous cost of doing any work on the network has to come down. I am sure a small amount of this is due to the much mentioned by Grant Shapps restrictive practices but most of it is due to arrogance on the part of Network Rail and the fragmented structure of the industry created at privatisation. A new integrated structure should reduce costs but the second issue is vital – having a plan. And here’s the radical bit. It has to be cross party so that it can be a really long term strategy for the railways that is not subject to the vagaries of political change. Oddly, the two recent examples of this have been Crossrail and HS2. There seems, therefore, agreement that we need this infrastructure and therefore the bickering over smaller schemes should be set aside. There needs, too, to be a sense of urgency. If we are serious about decarbonising, then the railways have to be a central part of the strategy.
  3. The workers And here’s another radical suggestion. It is amazing that during the long period of growth in passenger numbers, little attention was paid to rewarding the workers for their efforts. Government has been all too happy to provide incentives for the private sector, but what about the workers? Sure, the top managers did well, earning at times salaries that were out of kilter with their roles and bolstered by the ‘pretend capitalism’ that characterises efforts to involve the private sector in this industry. Train drivers, too, profited from the competition for their services but the resentments built up by the other staff in the industry are well demonstrated by the recent strong votes in favour of strikes. Labour is in a position to bring about a cultural change which will involve unions in accepting that there is a need for modernisation. It should be quite easy to promise no compulsory redundancies but as a quid pro quo the workers need to accept that change is at times inevitable. Is it not time, as we approach the second quarter of the 21st century, to find ways for management and unions to sit down together to discuss ‘how do we make the railways better?’

These are initial thoughts, and I will develop these ideas further over the next few months. Do email me with your suggestions – Labour’s policy at the moment is a blank sheet of paper, which needs filling, perhaps more urgently than expected given the trials and tribulations of the Johnson administration.



Lobbying for beginners


Talking to a Tory MP the other day, was surprised by the vehemence with which he lambasted the Rail Delivery Group for its failure to lobby government over key railway issues. It is not an uncommon criticism and indeed one I have made in the past.

Then he pointed out a couple of examples of good lobbying which I think are instructive to anyone in this business. Apparently, four times a year, Lloyds Bank send him a card with all sorts of data specific to his constituency, ranging from economic information about local businesses to how much the ATMs in the area are being used. Crucially, this is tailored to each constituency and sent out in an easily digestible form.

Google use a slightly different tack, tucking an A4 leaflet into a tin of tea, again sent to every MP with tailored information about local broadband speeds and other localised techy detail. The tea, my Tory pal suggested, probably cost £3but it made sure the parcel was opened!

Contrast this, he sighed, with the likes of the RDG which does not even seem to engage with MPs on any systematic basis. Suggestions that he and others have made for RDG to improve its lobbying have fallen on deaf ears. Indeed, the RDG’s press releases are so dull that they even outbore those from the Department for Transport.

So here’s an idea. Why does the RDG or its successor body, or indeed possibly Great British Railways not produce similar granular data for the number of local travellers, the economic impact of lines and information about services to every MP? It would be an exercise that undoubtedly would pay for itself in terms of the railway’s image and standing among politicians.


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