Masked by Keir Starmer’s speech setting out his plans for a Labour government, on the same day there was a rare outing by Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow transport spokeswoman, at a transport conference in Liverpool. I was hoping that it might enlighten us on what Labour’s plans for the railways really are. Unfortunately, it fell rather short of that.
Haigh was quite explicit about the terrible state of the railways, citing some good examples. She made an amusing point by suggesting that TransPennine Express was less reliable than the war-torn Ukrainian Railways and that in terms of performance overall, we were somewhere between Kazakhstan and India. More significantly, she said it should not take three hours to travel by train from Liverpool to Newcastle or four between Preston and Hull. And that’s when the trains are running on time. But in truth I suspect it will take more than the first term of a Labour government to address the shortcomings of the railway system in the North. Yes, she recommitted Labour to ‘delivering Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 in full’, but she cannot be certain that the money will be available nor what that entails. Moreover, precisely what delivering those two interconnected projects means in terms of rails on the ground and catenary in the air remains shrouded in uncertainty.
When it came to Labour plans to remedy all these ills, Haigh was totally vague. Nor did she say much about what Labour envisages as the future structure of the industry. There was not a word in the speech about how Labour is going to tackle the collapse in performance, nor about what the party means by renationalisation, though this remains Labour policy as reiterated at last year’s party conference. More specifically, what does the party intend to do about Great British Railways? There are doubts about whether this will be created before the election, but either way, Labour needs to have clarity about its preferred structure for the industry.
If Labour’s senior team thinks that they can just muddle through to the next election without a coherent plan about how to tackle the problems of the industry, they are making a big mistake. The Tories are ploughing ahead with their version of reform for the industry, and if passed into legislation, which may just about happen be squeezed in the next general election, it will entrench a model in which the private sector remains at the heart of the way the railways. The danger is that some version of franchising is recreated, in the desperate – and mistaken – desire to provide ‘incentives’ for private sector operators.
Re-creating the cumbersome structure of a fully outsourced railway will be both expensive and complex, taking up much of the middle of the decade. Outsourcing is not only complicated, but expensive. Running the system directly, in an integrated fashion, is the only efficient and economic way forward.
I’m afraid I must disagree with Sir Michael Holden, for whom I have enormous respect, when he wrote in the last Rail that Mark Harper’s keynote speech for George Bradshaw lecture in February was a ‘breath of fresh air’. More like hot air to me given Harper’s very emphasis on the private sector through both a kind of renewed franchising model and open access. It struck me as the ‘same old same old’ and he answered none of the fundamental issues in that model such as how do you give incentives to private operators without re-creating the whole paraphernalia of allocating delay minutes and how do you encourage open access without leading to massive abstraction of revenue that should be going to the Treasury. And a myriad other questions.
But if Harper is not answering them, neither is Labour. Uncertainty hangs over the industry like a storm cloud on a summer’s day, preventing long term planning and investment. Labour must go into the election with a worked out plan of how to tackle the problems of the industry, going far beyond its promise to ‘renationalise’. How, for example, does that fit in with the commitment made by Keir Starmer on the same day as Haigh’s speech to ensure there was a strong role for the private sector in his new ‘mission driven’ Labour government?
Worse, I’ve been informed by a key member of the Great British Railways Transition Team that Labour is not expected to oppose the legislation to create the new body This will probably be set out in the King’s Speech for the final session of this Parliament which is likely to start in the autumn, giving time for it to be passed. If Labour is not preparing a clear alternative, then the railways could be lumbered with legislation that clearly favours the fragmented and private sector oriented model set out in Williams Shapps. Not only is that hooked on the notion that private companies are the only ones that can innovate and run the system efficiently, but it is also strongly in danger of creating an engineering led railway, with Network Rail at its head, heart, and body. As I have stressed many times before, the structure that emerged in the last few years of British Rail’s existence was the perfect compromise between the commercial and social aspects of the railway.
The Labour front bench would be extremely naive if they think that the legislation is likely to be so benign that they can wave it through on the nod. It is not only the supremacy of the private sector that is at issue. The model of Great British Railways put forward in the Williams Shapps report puts Network Rail effectively in charge of the whole industry. The danger is then that the railways become engineering led, with customer needs being put at the back of the queue.
The job of Her Majesty’s Opposition – especially as election time looms – is to provide well-worked out alternatives to government plans, not to acquiesce in what could prove to be a disastrous policy for rail passengers. The Labour team needs to work on the issues overhanging the industry. It could, for example, develop a coherent fares policy, one that was both imaginative and simpler. It could ensure that decarbonisation is at the centre of every aspect of rail policy. It could ensure that the labour force is on board with a scheme to make the railways a key area of skills development not just in engineering but in other aspects of railway operation, just as it was under BR. And so on. But at the moment, all we are hearing are vague plans to ‘renationalise the railways’ whereas what is needed is a well worked out strategy for a public owned railway.
Nobody Gives a Damn Railway
The concept of the NGAD railway has rather caught the imagination of many readers who have supplied me with a steady supply of examples. My friend Mark Walker encountered precisely the lack of care given to the railway’s customers in a recent trip from Liverpool to Peterborough, a journey that entailed a change at Leeds for which he had an 18 minute connection. When the train stopped around Manchester for almost a quarter of an hour, he hoped in vain for some announcement from the guard. And as he followed the slow progress of the train through the Pennines, he saw that it was slipping ever so slowly to that dreaded 18 minute late figure.
There was hope, though, as in Leeds he saw the GNER train still on the platform and pelted up the stairs towards it, rushed down and watched as the train pulled out. The lack of a guard on TransPennine, the lack of anyone to make a decision to hold the GNER train, the absence of any sort of coordination – its definitely the NGAD rail at work.
Then there is the mystery of the Marston Line between Bedford and Bletchley, where you would think that the railways would be interested in building up passenger numbers in view of the imminent arrival of East West Rail. But no, my pal there, Richard Crane, is tearing his hair out as, with the demise of Vivarail, which provided the stock, there are no engineers to maintain the trains. And therefore no services. He points out that other Vivarail users have made arrangements to keep the trains going but not London & Northwestern, which also turned down the offer of alternative stock. Crane, who has long campaigned for improvements on the line, is furious: ‘The railways seem to be happier spending thousands of pounds running near-empty buses than getting the Train service back up and running. As reported in Rail, there is little likelihood of the service being reinstated this year ! How can LNR be allowed to get away with this?’ Is it because no one gives….
Therefore I plan to reserve the shorter article in my column for examples of the NGAD railway– at least until there are signs that things are getting better (which does not necessarily mean when Labour wins the next election, as the main piece warns). So please send your railway experiences to me at email@example.com