Time for bigger thinking on our railways

9th July, 2014 5:37 pm

There is a lively debate across the country about the future of our railways. At the heart of this is a sense – shared amongst the public – that the rail system is not delivering the best deal for us as passengers or taxpayers.

For a start, our railways are far more expensive than in other countries. The botched privatisation of the 1990s created a complex split between train, rolling stock and track which has led to needless costs.

Our rail fares are amongst the most expensive in Europe – and inflation-busting rail hikes of 20% under this government has made this worse.  A minefield of different tickets, rules and routes has left customers feeling like the system is trying to ‘rip them off’.

In the midst of a cost of living crisis – and at a time when there is less money to go around – it’s pretty obvious the status quo is unsustainable and in need of urgent reform.

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Labour’s task is to develop a policy response that measures up to the scale of the problem. This goes deeper than whether the railways are in public or private hands. It is about whole-system reform.

Simply accepting the status quo, as the Tories have done, is not an option for Labour. But nor is a throw-back to the days of British Rail. Public ownership did not solve the problem of chronic underinvestment in the railways or the lack of long term planning. We need different solutions that speak to challenges we face today.

There is no ‘guiding mind’ for the railways planning investment to meet the needs of this generation and the next.

We have a monopoly market for rolling stock that has allowed a handful of companies to make huge profits from expensive trains.

And we have a government that has presided over a franchising fiasco, most spectacularly on the West Coast Mainline, which has cost the taxpayer over £50 million.  We need a better system – one that starts from the public interest.

We have a bizarre situation where state railways from other countries can bid to run our rail services yet our own Directly Operated Railway (DOR) is unable to bid even to continue running the line they currently operate, the East Coast Mainline. This doesn’t add up. For the Tories this isn’t about the public interest. Rather than having the best operator for the job – public or private – running the rail service they have put ideology before common sense.

There are big reform questions facing the next government. The Tories clearly have no answers to these. And while the last Labour government turned around investment in our railways our 2010 manifesto, which loosely welcomed co-operatives and mutual to bid for franchises, didn’t provide an answer to the challenges we now face. It didn’t contain a commitment to legislate for the public sector to be able to run routes. Nor did it deal with the wider reforms that are needed for our railways to succeed.

Our 2015 manifesto must do better. It must provide answers to the wider reform challenges we face – and this must go beyond the nostalgic antidote of re-creating British Rail. This means answers to how we plan future rail investment when there is less money around? How we drive value for money and innovation? How we get Network Rail to come together with operators to create a system that works better for travellers and commuters? How we give local areas the power to shape their railways so decisions aren’t made by managers that are miles away? And most important of all, how do we deliver a better deal on fares for hard-pressed commuters?

These are big questions that Labour is seeking to answer as part of its policy review. The country expects us to rise to this challenge. Our task in the coming weeks and months, is to set out serious reforms that stand up to this test.

Jon Cruddas is the Chair of Labour’s Policy Review

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