TUC rail fringe calls for bold commitment from Labour

At a well-attended fringe at TUC Congress organised by the joint trade union Action for Rail campaign, delegates discussed the possibility of a Labour government introducing radical reform of our railways. Panelists and delegates held a lively debate and called for Labour to deliver a bold commitment on public ownership ahead of the general election.

The fringe meeting was held in the style of BBC show Question Time, where delegates asked questions to a panel including Diana Holland, Assistant General Secretary, Unite; Mick Cash, Acting General Secretary, RMT; Manuel Cortes, General Secretary of TSSA; Mick Whelan, General Secretary, ASLEF; and Ian Taylor, Director, Transport for Quality of Life.

Can Labour Deliver Radical Rail Reform?
Can Labour Deliver Radical Rail Reform?

Some of the questions put to the panel included:

  • What impact does the classification of Network Rail as a public body have on the trade unions’ campaign for public ownership?
  • What are the key obstacles to the Labour Party committing to bringing the rail franchises back into public ownership,as they expire?
  • Labour is talking about a public sector operator bidding for franchises. Is this a step towards public ownership?
  • What practical steps should the Labour Party commit to making for radical rail reform?
  • Polls show widespread support for public ownership of our railways. How significant an issue is rail likely to be in the general election?

Speakers noted how important an issue public ownership of the railways is likely to be at the next general election, with opinion polls consistently showing high public support including in ‘key’ commuter belt ‘marginal’ seats. Diana Holland noted that several parliamentary candidates have spoken in favour of public ownership recently, for example at the Action for Rail day of action for fair fares & public ownership on August 19 this year.

The speakers and audience explored the full scale of the waste, profiteering and fragmentation in the railway industry, and the impact this has had on railway workers, passengers and taxpayers, since privatisation. On the day of the fringe, the latest financial report from the publicly owned East Coast company was released, revealing that it had provided the Department for Transport with £216.9m in premium and dividend payments in the financial year 2013-14. Despite this, speakers noted, the government is determined to privatise it before the next general election.

Ian Taylor, Director of the think tank Transport for Quality of Life, argued that a public company that could take back the franchises as they expire would be able to return a significant amount more to the Treasury, provide much better value for money to the taxpayer, and reduce fragmentation and wastage.

Mick Cash, Acting General Secretary of RMT argued that ‘we need bold commitments from the Labour Party’ to bringing the railways into public ownership, and that we need to keep up the pressure. Mick Whelan, General Secretary of ASLEF, said ‘We need legislation that allows us to run our own trains. We need a step change to get to where we want to be.’ Manuel Cortes, General Secretary of TSSA, agreed, saying that ‘a clear pledge for the public ownership of our railways would give Ed Miliband the keys to Number 10.’

Panelists and delegates debated the opportunities afforded by the outcome, in regard to public transport, of Labour’s National Policy Forum, while also reflecting on the remaining obstacles and challenges in the Labour Party committing towards radical reform of our railways. It was generally agreed that the next general election provides a huge opportunity for the incoming government to create a wholly new, efficient railway system, in public ownership, which could deliver excellent value for money for taxpayers and passengers.

The debate will continue at the Labour Party Conference, at which Action for Rail are holding a further ‘Question Time’ fringe on the same subject. Details below:

Fringe title: Can Labour Deliver Radical Rail Reform?

Cost: Free – attendees do not need a Labour Conference pass

Date: Sunday 21 September, 12.30 – 14.00

Venue: The Hall, Mechanics Institute, 103 Princess Street, Manchester M1 6DD


  • Mary Creagh MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Transport
  • Mick Cash, Acting General Secretary, RMT
  • Neal Lawson, Chair, Compass
  • Mick Whelan, General Secretary, ASLEF
  • Diana Holland, Assistant General Secretary, Unite
  • Andi Fox, Executive Member, TSSA

Chair:  Paul Nowak, Assistant General Secretary, Trades Union Congress

Please submit all questions in advance by email

Refreshments will be provided.