Labour‘s elec­tion dilemma.

The Gen­eral Elec­tion will put the spot­light on Labour’s na­tion­al­i­sa­tion plans, but the party would be bet­ter served ad­dress­ing other rail is­sues, says CHRISTIAN WOL­MAR

Rail (UK) - - Contents - Christian Wol­mar

RAIL­WAYS rarely fig­ure in Gen­eral Elec­tion de­bates. Even when the Con­ser­va­tives set out their (ad­mit­tedly vague) plans to pri­va­tise the rail­ways in 1992, there was pre­cious lit­tle dis­cus­sion, even though the sub­se­quent breakup of Bri­tish Rail and the sell-off later be­came a ma­jor area of po­lit­i­cal con­tro­versy.

While I don’t think that the fu­ture of the rail­ways will be dis­cussed that much on the doorstep, Labour will be tempted to use re­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of the rail­ways as a cen­tre­piece of its pol­icy. It is one of the is­sues that Jeremy Cor­byn men­tions fre­quently in speeches. His ad­vis­ers are also en­thu­si­as­tic, point­ing out that in polls more than two-thirds of re­spon­dents would like to see the rail­ways re­na­tion­alised.

How­ever, I would cau­tion the Labour lead­er­ship not to put too much em­pha­sis on an is­sue that is highly likely to dis­ap­point its pro­po­nents. The fun­da­men­tal prob­lem is that in 2017, it is im­pos­si­ble to re-cre­ate the best as­pects of Bri­tish Rail be­cause that has been ir­repara­bly bro­ken up.

For ex­am­ple, we will not be able to have that ex­cel­lent co­hort of se­nior man­agers who had un­der­taken ev­ery job on the railway, from as­sis­tant sta­tion mas­ter at Lit­tle Pud­dle­ton-onSea to be­ing in charge of train op­er­a­tions at Lon­don Water­loo.

Nor will it be pos­si­ble to re-es­tab­lish the fi­nan­cial dis­ci­plines that served BR well when in­tro­duc­ing im­prove­ments at a rea­son­able cost, such as elec­tri­fy­ing the East Coast Main Line, which is such a con­trast with to­day’s fail­ures of project man­age­ment. The Humpty Dumpty railway is in bits and pieces, and it is im­pos­si­ble to stick them back to­gether again.

There­fore, Labour faces the ques­tion of what would ‘re­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion’ mean in prac­tice? Af­ter all, Net­work Rail is al­ready re­na­tion­alised and sub­ject to con­sid­er­able Govern­ment scru­tiny. Al­though it is in many ways com­pletely dys­func­tional, over­spend­ing on projects and fail­ing to de­liver them on time, this has less to do with the struc­ture of its own­er­ship, but rather is down to the man­age­ment skills… or lack of them.

The rolling stock is owned by three pri­vate com­pa­nies, and there is no way that any sen­si­ble govern­ment would be able to buy it back. Of course, new deals could be done through di­rect pur­chase - as Trans­port for Lon­don and Mersey­travel have done - but it would take decades be­fore the stock is all in public hands.

The third el­e­ment of the rail­ways, the op­er­a­tions, is there­fore the key bat­tle­ground. Labour has said it wants to take the own­er­ship back in-house, but the prob­lem is that many deals have been signed stretch­ing into the 2020s. Again, there is no way that a re­spon­si­ble govern­ment could re­scind th­ese con­tracts, as the com­pen­sa­tion pay­ments would be pro­hib­i­tive. There­fore, the best an in­com­ing Labour Govern­ment could do is wait for fran­chises to run out and not let them out again.

This is per­mis­si­ble un­der the Rail­ways Act 1993, whereas (oddly) public sec­tor or­gan­i­sa­tions are not al­lowed to bid for fran­chises. There­fore, change will come about only slowly. It will be im­pos­si­ble for Labour to claim to be able to ‘re­na­tion­alise’ the rail­ways quickly, and nor will it be pos­si­ble for a new Labour Govern­ment to do much about the cur­rent struc­ture of the rail­ways for a con­sid­er­able time.

Labour does, of course, have a skele­ton in its cup­board - its re­la­tion­ship with the unions. Few peo­ple are prob­a­bly aware that the RMT is ac­tu­ally no longer as­so­ci­ated with Labour, be­cause the party - even un­der Cor­byn - is not left-wing enough for its tastes. Nev­er­the­less, the dis­rup­tions caused by strikes over the past year or so will un­doubt­edly stim­u­late some Con­ser­va­tive at­tacks on Labour in the re­gions af­fected, which now in­clude the party’s north­ern heart­lands.

The other par­ties are likely to say lit­tle about the rail­ways in the forth­com­ing elec­tion. The Tories will be loath to men­tion them know­ing that their big­gest project, HS2, has lit­tle sup­port either in the party or among the public. It is far too early to be singing its praises be­fore a sod has even been turned (apart from a few mi­nor pre­lim­i­nary works). They are vul­ner­a­ble on the is­sue of fares, but few are likely to de­ter­mine their vote on the ba­sis of their railway pol­icy.

In­deed, that is where Labour’s en­thu­si­asm for re­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion is, in a way, rather ir­rel­e­vant. While many favour tak­ing back the rail­ways into state own­er­ship, a sur­vey found that only 3% are likely to base their vote on the is­sue. In other words, re­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion is in the ‘nice to have’ rather than the ‘def­i­nitely want’ cat­e­gory.

None of this is to say that the cur­rent struc­ture works well or does not need

“Re­form should be more about build­ing Net­work Rail’s ca­pac­ity to man­age projects, to rein­te­grate the railway as much as pos­si­ble, and to move away from the ide­o­log­i­cal com­mit­ment that franchising is the only way to run the railway.”

over­haul. I spend many of th­ese columns writ­ing of the fail­ings of the sys­tem, and there is no doubt that al­low­ing the fran­chises to run out and bring­ing them back in-house would save money.

More­over, there is a real need for an or­gan­i­sa­tion that sits be­tween govern­ment and the rail­ways. The abo­li­tion of the Strate­gic Rail Au­thor­ity was prompted by the fail­ings of its man­age­ment, rather than any co­her­ent anal­y­sis of the best struc­ture for the rail­ways. Hav­ing the Depart­ment for Trans­port run the rail­ways di­rectly is un­prece­dented in his­tory and clearly un­sat­is­fac­tory on so many lev­els, from rolling stock pro­cure­ment and project plan­ning to fares pol­icy and franchising.

There is an ur­gent need for a new railway or­gan­i­sa­tion, and Labour would be much bet­ter push­ing that idea rather than mak­ing prom­ises over the ben­e­fits of rail re­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion. That will not get Cor­byn a seat on an over­crowded train, as he im­plied in his botched at­tempt to high­light the is­sue on his YouTube broad­cast, when he was filmed sit­ting on the floor on a train that was not full.

How­ever, re­form should be more about build­ing Net­work Rail’s ca­pac­ity to man­age projects, to rein­te­grate the railway as much as pos­si­ble, and to move away from the ide­o­log­i­cal com­mit­ment that franchising is the only way to run the railway. Labour should fo­cus on other as­pects of railway pol­icy and trans­port, rather than sim­ply par­rot­ing the mantra of ‘re­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of the rail­ways’. The in­com­pre­hen­si­ble and at times ex­pen­sive fares struc­ture is an is­sue worth ad­dress­ing, as are the mas­sive cuts in bus ser­vices across the coun­try.

Of course, the odds of an out­right vic­tory for Labour are the sort that were of­fered for Le­ices­ter win­ning the Premier­ship last year, and that sort of thing rarely hap­pens twice in a life­time. Nev­er­the­less, this is an im­por­tant is­sue - it is part of an on­go­ing de­bate that never seems to go away. I have men­tioned be­fore in this col­umn that in writ­ing my book Blood, Iron

& Gold a few years ago about the world’s rail­ways, I came across a de­bate in the Ital­ian par­lia­ment in the 1870s about rail pri­vati­sa­tion: the Right sup­ported it and the Left op­posed it.

I am, of course, a Labour sup­porter and want the party to do well in the forth­com­ing Gen­eral Elec­tion. That means think­ing through poli­cies, rather than merely re­peat­ing sound bites that ap­pear at­trac­tive but are not de­liv­er­able.


The view at Waltham­stow Queens Road on July 20 2016, where plat­forms were be­ing ex­tended to ac­com­mo­date four-car EMUs once elec­tri­fi­ca­tion is com­plete.

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