The Labour Party is committed to our railways, unlike the current government who seem more concerned pushing their ideologically driven desire to reprivatise the East Coast mainline.
The last Labour government doubled the number of people taking the train and made our railway the safest in Europe.
The party abolished the disastrous Railtrack and set up Network Rail as a not-for-profit provider of the railway infrastructure.
Labour invested more in the railway than any previous government. We replaced much of the aging British Rail fleet and completed the High Speed One link to the channel tunnel. We planned for the future with ambitious projects including Crossrail, Thameslink, the electrification of the Great Western Main Line and High Speed Two.
But sadly, this government puts shareholders before passengers. As Shadow Transport Secretary, I regularly hear the concerns of rail users and workers.
The Tory-led coalition has presided over eye-watering fare rises, poor quality train carriages and unacceptable reliability and punctuality.
Most worryingly, given the cost of living crisis, is that our ticket prices are among the most expensive in Europe: commuter fares have risen an astonishing amount – over 20% under the coalition government. And people feel they are being ripped off because they can’t work out which is the cheapest ticket for their journey.
A Labour government will support hard pressed passengers.
After their disastrous attempt to refranchise the West Coast Mainline the government had a chance to reorganise the railway to avoid future catastrophes. Sadly, Ministers avoided the underlying problem and left the chaotic, fragmented structure of the railway intact.
Yet it is that fragmented and opaque organisation of the rail network that is the root cause of most of its problems.
A Labour government will not dodge the tough decisions that are required to fix this mess.
Simply put, there is no “guiding mind” to plan future investment and to integrate the track and trains in the interest of passengers. The objectives, incentives and rewards for Network Rail and the train operating companies are misaligned, and sometimes even compete.
Take the train carriages, which are all owned by just three companies, pretty much unchanged since privatisation. With no competition, it’s no surprise that they make huge profits for doing very little, in a low risk environment. When the private sector companies walk away as they did, twice, on the East Coast mainline, the trains don’t stop running. The government steps in.
And consider the inadequate franchise system. The West Coast Main Line fiasco cost taxpayers £50 million directly and hundreds of millions more from delays to investment and the tendering of other routes. Money that could have been used to reduce fares.
The government has failed passengers and the taxpayer.
Today, I will lay out Labour’s ambitious plan for our railways. It is unacceptable our railways are 40% more expensive to run that those on the continent. We won’t shirk from doing what is required to ensure efficiency. Furthermore, we will put these savings back where they belong – in peoples’ pockets.
Our plan has five steps:
First, we will bring Network Rail – the body that operates the tracks – together with a new representative passenger rail organisation. Working as one, it will plan investment and services; contract routes; coordinate services; oversee stations, fares and ticketing; procure and lease new rolling stock; raise skill levels and ensure customer satisfaction across the network.
Second, we will review the failures of the existing franchise process and replace it with a system that puts passengers first, taking the difficult decisions this government avoided.
Third, since the East Coast railway was taken into public ownership, it has delivered beyond expectations. Both passenger satisfaction ratings and punctuality are consistently excellent. It will have returned over a billion pounds back to taxpayers by March next year.
You would think the government would want to take the credit for this success. Instead, driven by ideology, they think it will be third time lucky for a private operator to try and run the line more effectively than a public operator whose only shareholder is the passenger.
A Labour government will not run the railway to score political points. We will do what is needed to deliver a world class service. We will, therefore, legislate to allow a public sector operator to challenge private train operators on a level playing field, increasing value for money for both passengers and taxpayers.
Fourth, we know that ministers sitting in Whitehall do not know best how to run the nation’s trains. This government thinks local decisions about train times and routes should be been taken in London by people with no means of determining local needs.
By drawing on our cooperative values, we will increase passenger and employee involvement in the delivery of rail services and give users a greater say in how they are run. Unlike the government’s “we know best” attitude, we will devolve decision making over the running of regional and local services, including to Scotland and Wales, so communities can better integrate their local transport systems.
Finally, with the efficiencies the above reforms will generate we will reduce fares to help tackle the cost-of-living crisis.
The next Labour government will introduce a strict cap on rail fares by removing the current ‘flex’ which allows rail companies to increase ticket prices over and above the annual cap on some routes.
We shall also create a legal right to the cheapest ticket for your journey, ending passengers’ confusion and concern.
Rail passengers, taxpayers and rail workers deserve better. At the next election Labour will offer voters a clear choice.
Five more years of the Tory’s rising fares, overcrowded trains and cutbacks to staff and services; or Labour’s plan to put passengers first by delivering the most radical reform of the railway since privatisation.
Mary Creagh is Shadow Secretary of State for Transport