The purpose of Private Members’ Bills is not always to create legislation, and can be an opportunity to embarrass the Government; in that sense Caroline Lucas’ Bill to renationalise the railways, due to receive its Second Reading today, is unusual in that it is more. It’s certainly not remotely fit for purpose as a piece of legislation and begs more questions than it answers, not least about the costs of nationalisation and how a Green government would intend to discharge its legal obligations to franchise holders. I’ve argued before that such a bill, which does not begin to get to grips with the contractual complexities of the railways industry, is simply not a priority at this stage.
But there’s a bigger question in all this. Why does so much of the debate about public transport revolve around rail? True, in London and the South East it’s an important issue for commuters – especially as soaring living costs drive London workers further and further into the surrounding counties – but it still accounts for only 6% of total travel and remains a means of transport predominantly used by the better-off. In most places public transport means buses and the issues are around the cost and frequency of provision, and bus access and priority in congested urban centres – and of course improving mobility for the third of the population who have no access to a car. The reason why the political and media classes see rail as the central issue is because they’re the people that use them. Caroline Lucas represents a commuting constituency so the pro-rail bias is understandable, but the emphasis on rail strongly mirrors the empowered, urban and affluent who constitute the Green Party’s base. The railways have long been the preserve of the affluent middle class
Real progress in improving transport often means small, unglamorous local measures; traffic calming and enforceable (or self-enforcing) speed reduction, bus priority measures, improvements to access. They’re often low cost and provide far better value for money than sinking money into subsidising rail – although the paradox is that in the long-term a rail network that is capable of providing real economic and environmental benefits will need the kind of investment that the private sector has simply failed to provide. On local measures, it was interesting to see how Labour’s recent shadow Transport Secretary, Maria Eagle, understood the benefits of small low-cost measures in a way that those who see rail renationalisation as the Holy Grail simply miss.
In the immediate term, the real aim of transport policy surely needs to be based around low-cost, high-value schemes that bring real benefits and really address issues of transport access. The bus, not the train, should be at the heart of policy for a progressive government after 2015. And it needs an understanding that car-dependency, however damaging it may be, is a collective problem; the perjorative tone used by some Greens about car use is really just an expression of privilege, failing to recognise that for some people, using the car is the only choice (to compare some of the language with that used by the coalition about welfare and benefits and lifestyle choices is instructive). The trouble is that, especially for those in the Green movement whose aim appears to be to reframe privilege rather than oppose it, buses just aren’t that appealing. But they’re what, for most people, public transport is about.
I still believe in principle that rail should be brought into public ownership. But there are more important transport policy goals in the immediate term. Nationalisation is for the next Labour government’s second term, not its first.