The debate on the future of the railways is among the most interesting at the Labour Party’s National Policy Forum. The challenge was to understand that there are three key challenges facing the rail system – the privatised structure, capacity issues, and the cuts in subsidy in recent years that have contributed hugely to the cost of living crisis affecting places like Brighton and Hove. In the face of simplistic calls simply to let franchises expire (for example in Caroline Lucas’ Private Member’s Bill), offering the pretence of renationalisation while leaving the current inefficient structures intact, Labour had to produce something much more comprehensive and subtle.
According to Labour List, this is the final text of the rail policy:
It meets and surpasses expectations. It main components offer a coherent and progressive programme for reforming the railways, rooted firmly in the realities of the rail industry. In summary:
– it gives the public sector the right to bid for rail franchises: the basic argument against the simplistic policy of allowing franchises to lapse is that this keeps the private sector in the game, and does not remove the incentive simply to let franchises run down. It also recognises our obligations under EU law to keep the railway network open to third party operators. Unlike the simple solution proposed by Caroline Lucas and the Green Party, it actually reduces the risk that expiring franchises will require additional subsidy as operators run down their investment, with no incentive to do more than the absolute bare minimum to fulfil the contract while continuing to cream off profit;
– it tackles the problem of monopoly control over rolling stock: the simplistic approach ignores the financial hold that the rolling stock supplier has over train operators. At last politicians are seriously discussing dealing with this issue and ensuring that Network Rail, which is already state-owned, will have a key role in delivering long-term rolling stock provision. It’s a crucial point that Lucas has never addressed, but in terms of reducing costs and hence fares is absolutely essential.
– it will create a new “guiding mind” for the railway network: and by doing so will directly overturn the fundamental principle of the 1993 Railways Act, which established the principle of the railway as a lightly-regulated market and, along with it, the idea that the interfaces between different functions on the railway are managed by cumbersome legal contracts. This, hopefully, will not be a revived British Rail – which was a hopelessly inefficient organisation that as a nationalised industry had an uneasy relationship with Government that led to managerial paralysis. This is a chance to build something far better and workable, drawing on the best practice of railway networks in Europe and beyond.
– it will inject co-operative principles into the running of the rail network – the emphasis on co-operative and mutual solutions is hugely welcome and takes the debate into new areas. It shows that there is far more to public ownership than nationalisation.
– it will devolve strategic decisions to Scotland, Wales and the regions. This is all of a piece with Labour’s wider economic devolution of power; it means that decisions will be linked more closely to economic need and – in line with Labour’s promise to increase democratic scrutiny of local government – will ensure that decisions about new infrastructure and new capacity can be taken in a more rational, more responsive way, along with decisions about other transport modes and in tandem with the economic decisions that shape transport need.
– it will ensure that rail fare rises are capped – and for people in London and the South East in particular who have been hurt badly by swingeing price rises that have resulted from Coalition cuts, that’s an important blow in dealing with the cost of living crisis.
There remain huge challenges. Most of this will require legislation; and the question of where the money will come from, in particular for investment in capacity, remains. But, in contrast to the approach to the railways set out in Caroline Lucas’ Bill, and the simplistic calls on the left to allow franchises to expire, this represents a programme for real change, realistic and based on an understanding of the need to change structures fundamentally. And, in dealing with a complex and difficult set of issues, it illustrates the yawning chasm that exists between a party of protest and a party of Government.