Can Labour Deliver Radical Rail Reform?

Panelists (R-L) Diana Holland, Neal Lawson, Andi Fox, Paul Nowak, Mary Creagh, Mick Whelan, Mick Cash

‘Can Labour Deliver Radical Rail Reform?’ was the issue up for discussion at a packed Action for Rail fringe meeting at Labour Party Conference on 21 September.

The ‘Question Time’ panel was made up of Mary Creagh, Shadow Secretary of State for Transport; Mick Whelan, General Secretary, Aslef; Mick Cash, General Secretary, RMT; Andi Fox, Exec  Committee, TSSA; Diana Holland, Assistant General Secretary, Unite; Neal Lawson Chair of Compass; and chaired by Paul Nowak, Assistant General Secretary, TUC.

Mary Creagh, set out what she described as “massive reforms” for rail which will include new legislation to allow a public sector body to run train lines, also stating “Allowing the public sector to bid is really important”.  She said that there should be a body to oversee the whole rail network ‘a guiding mind’ – which Action for Rail has been calling for as part of campaigning for public ownership.

However, bidding would be costly for taxpayers, Mick Cash told Creagh, with one bid costing around £10m, and with 11 franchises up for renewal in the next parliament.

On private companies making profits on the back of taxpayer subsidies, Mick Whelan said that “there are franchises like Arriva Trains Wales, Northern Rail and ScotRail, where you give them £600m and if they can run it for £550m they take the rest for their shareholders. We’re paying people to take a profit. That’s why we have to put it all back together”.

“We all know that privatisation has failed”, said Cash. “Now we need a clear message that Labour will bring franchises back into public ownership as they expire, because it costs nothing.”

“It’s a historic opportunity to reverse privatisation… put public ownership as part of your manifesto – it’s a vote winner”, Andi Fox told Creagh.

Diana Holland, in support of public ownership, stressed the importance of looking at rail and other transport as part of public services and the need to integrate these. “If we don’t get rail policy right, we undermine a lot of policies on transport” she said.

More broadly, Neal Lawson said that the future of the railways related to us as citizens and what kind of society we want to live in.” I want to see a Labour government that talks about the morality of public ownership. Stations and trains are places where we can be citizens first.”

There was clearly huge support for public ownership of our railways among Labour members at the fringe.

High fares and moves by Northern Rail to charge full fares for previously off-peak tickets were keenly discussed together with the complex and opaque ticketing system we have as part of privatisation. Creagh told the audience that Labour is committed to easing the pressure on fares and creating a new legal right to the cheapest ticket.

But our high fares, she was reminded, are part of the failure of privatisation, with research showing that public ownership could save £1.2bn each year, and this could fund an 18% cut in fares.

On the soon to be privatised East Coast Mainline, Creagh acknowledged that it has returned £1bn to the Treasury since 2009, unlike the private train companies. She said that Labour wants to keep East Coast public and has supported the Action for Rail campaign in this area. The franchise process should take two years, she stated, but East Coast is being done in 16 months – rushed before the election. Ideologically, said Creagh, the government don’t want a successful state operator on the table when they leave government.

Fox, a rep on East Coast said that Labour should be saying that it will take East Coast back into public ownership – ‘we’re not anti-business, we’re doing what makes political and economic sense’. Lawson reiterated this adding that Labour should also have said they would take Royal Mail back under public ownership – “That would stop privatisation in its tracks. It will scare off anyone”. However Creagh stated that Labour would be in a difficult position if contracts were signed before the election – “we don’t want a judicial review for ripping up contracts”.

In response to plans to have driver only operated trains on Northern Rail, and for this to be optional for Transpennine, Whelan said that “there should be no extension of driver only operations. We want a safe, secure railway, and we need  staff on trains and at stations. These plans are not based on any new technology – they aren’t good for passengers or the taxpayer.”

Holland added that these cuts and reforms were driving inequality even further, while Cash invited Creagh to write an article for the RMT magazine in support of keeping guards on trains and staff at stations. He added that the contract won’t be signed until October 2015, and asked for reassurance that Labour wouldn’t sign if they are elected.

Creagh responded by saying that we need to be clearer about safety standards and ensuring people have access to our railways. There is a tension between Rail North wanting better services for local communities and the Department for Transport. She noted the increasing number of assaults taking place on trains and at stations – “we want a railway that’s safe for passengers and safe for staff”.

On the Fourth Railway Package, Creagh stated that she intended to meet with the new Chair of the Transport Committee – as there seems to be a naive view in Brussels about how privatisation has fared here – and she wants to explain what it is like.

In addition to the reforms outlined by Creagh, she also stated that she wants Network Rail to be aligned with a rail passenger group, and that there would be increased devolution where possible.

In response to a question about Labour’s promised review of franchises and agreement to consult with unions, Creagh said that the process was still being discussed, but that they would look at each franchise as it comes up for renewal to see if it is “fit for purpose”.

Action for Rail would like to thank those who attended and submitted questions in advance/raised questions at the event – which contributed to a lively discussion.