Where now for Labour and rail public ownership?

(L-R) Manuel Cortes, Mick Lynch, Lucy Anderson MEP, Paul Nowak, Lilian Greenwood MP, Mick Whelan.
(L-R) Manuel Cortes, Mick Lynch, Lucy Anderson MEP,
Paul Nowak, Lilian Greenwood MP, Mick Whelan.

There was a huge turnout for the Action for Rail fringe ‘Where now for Labour and rail public ownership? at Labour Party Conference 2015. Following presentations from the panel, there was a lively and probing question and answer session covering issues such as models for public ownership, integrated transport policy, investment and implications of EU regulations.

The panel included: Lilian Greenwood MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Transport; Lucy Anderson MEP; Manuel Cortes, General Secretary TSSA; Diana Holland, Assistant General Secretary Unite; Mick Lynch, Assistant General Secretary RMT; and Mick Whelan, General Secretary Aslef. The fringe was chaired by Paul Nowak, Assistant General Secretary, TUC.

Key points made by the panel in presentations and Q&A :

Lilian Greenwood MP

Privatisation was supposed to deliver cheaper fares, better services and investment, but it hasn’t delivered. Fares have increased by an average of 25% since 2010 – rising faster than wages. Some passengers have seen their season tickets increase by 35%, and there have been stealth fare rises on some lines. Ticketing arrangements are very complicated and our fares don’t compare well with Europe.

The East Coast Main Line was successful under public ownership – it had high passenger satisfaction ratings, cut fares in real terms, and returned around £1bn to the Treasury. Labour opposed privatising East Coast, but the government pushed ahead with its ideological decision – “shameful”.

We need a stronger role for the public sector – public ownership of the railways was central to Jeremy’s campaign. Labour will be setting up a task force to see how it can implement this policy –we welcome submissions and evidence from everyone involved in the rail industry and want an inclusive policy and inclusive process.

We have a huge fight on our hands as the Conservatives could break up and privatise Network Rail – we know this was a disaster in the past and the dangers it would bring. Devolution is important – giving local people a say over transport, and there needs to be integration. We need to get rid of fragmentation. Devolution is also about fair funding and it should not just be available for a ‘chosen few’.

We need investment in infrastructure, and the Conservatives have failed to keep their promises as we can see from the pause on electrification of the Midland Mainline. High speed rail can support jobs and offers an opportunity to build on our engineering expertise.

Private train companies paid out £183m in share holder dividends (2013/14) – this money should have been used to reduce fares or for investment.

Every freight train that runs takes 80 HGVs off the road, which has implications for congestion, air quality and cycling.

Public ownership of the railways makes economic sense and electoral sense – it’s popular with voters. “We are ready to be bold and we will put passengers first….. we want a transport system that reflects Labour values.” Labour is also looking again at how it supports our public services including transport, education and health.

Q&A: reforms will take time and we still need a guiding mind for strategic direction. We’ll need to ensure the railways are delivering while there is a transition process. We have to fight the ideological drive to privatise Network Rail and we should campaign together. We have to look at the wider rail network including freight, safety and the environment – tackling issues as a complete system. At present there is falling passenger satisfaction – we are on the side of passengers. Bus services are in decline, but there are high levels of subsidies and profits for the companies. Around 2,000 bus services have been withdrawn or reduced since 2010. We need to ensure people have access to transport and that services are meeting their needs. Labour is determined to give local authorities the powers to regulate buses.

Lucy Anderson MEP

The European Commission has been a pushing market liberalisation agenda – against what we are trying to do. Draft legislation for the Fourth Railway DSCF2192ePackage is at a critical stage where it could be agreed by EU Member States. The ‘political pillar’ of the package includes mandatory competitive tendering of rail passenger services. We need to campaign for better legislation and we’ll be working with colleagues on amendments. On 8 October, unions from across Europe will be holding a demonstration against the Fourth Railway Package.

It is simply not true that current EU law means privatisation of the railways. The Conservatives were driving that ideological agenda. Other countries like France with SNCF have kept their railways together (not separated train operations and infrastructure as in the UK). We want the flexibility to have direct awards to secure what’s in the best interests of the public. There is a crisis in investment in rail – and something needs to be done about this. We are way behind other countries on electrification – we need to invest.

Member States should be able to choose how to run their railways. There are Treaties which defend the rights of Member States to keep services in public ownership if they want.

Q&A: Selling off the Eurostar was a disgrace. Private investment will never deliver the levels of investment we need. For every £1 of government investment we get £4 back in growth. On fares – it’s absurd that people are being priced out of using the railways. Buses are critical to social inclusion, and it isn’t fair that different workers get different rates of pay across the country.

Manuel Cortes, General Secretary TSSA

In 2004, a resolution was passed at Labour Party Conference to bring the railways back under public ownership. We welcome that the Labour leadership is not shying away from this issue. Franchises can be taken back into public ownership as they expire and this won’t cost.

Labour has to be clear – and say it’s not in favour of privatisation of Network Rail. Billions of pounds have been spent on subsidies for companies, this could be used to rebuild train manufacturing in the UK. All trains should be procured by the state – creating good quality jobs and up-skilling the economy.

Q&A: Scottish Labour needs to be bolder than before, and the SNP should have waited to get the devolved powers that could have brought the railways into public ownership. We need to give people a real say in the running of the railways.

Diana Holland, Assistant General Secretary Unite

We need to expose that privatisation has not delivered cheaper fares, better services and more private sector investment. Fragmentation due to privatisation is a threat to safety, and public subsidies to the railways have doubled, while money is being siphoned off in private profits.

We need to expose the attacks on our public services. East Coast proved that public ownership can deliver – returning nearly £1bn to the Treasury.

We need recognition and support for transport sector workers, who have been singled out for attack in the Trade Union Bill. We want an integrated transport system and that needs a clear transport policy which delivers in the interests of society – better for the travelling public, safety, workers, the environment and freight. An integrated transport system is impossible if you don’t have public control over it.

Q&A: There is a race to the bottom on safety. Terms and conditions are based on what’s cheapest, not what is best or safest. On fares, the situation is so unfair, particularly for part time workers. There are vested interests that are against Quality Contract Schemes for buses in the North East – we can’t have operations in the interests of private profits.

Mick Lynch, Assistant General Secretary, RMT

We welcome Jeremy Corbyn’s statement on the future of the railways and Labour Party policy for a fully integrated railway. There can’t be a patchwork approach – it’s about bringing the entire rail network into public control creating an identifiable organisation that’s democratically accountable. An organisation that is in public hands and serves the interests of the public. That’s the kind of brave policy that the Labour Party needs. For private companies there is massive profit for no risk and little investment. The Rail Delivery Group is all myths. We need a progressive co-operative framework for our railways. The Labour Party cannot modify franchising, because you can’t modify failure.

The needs of workers can be balanced with the needs of passengers, society and the environment. Some fear a progressive campaign for public ownership of our railways because it would mean that they would lose massive subsidies for private profits. Deutsche Bahn and SNCF don’t want separation of train operations and infrastructure management (like we have in the UK). We need to campaign against the break up and privatisation of Network Rail. We also need to refresh our views about public ownership more widely – of schools, the NHS and other public services. The debate should include workers, passengers, users, groups representing people with disabilities – all having a voice and taking real ownership.

Q&A: British Rail had an egalitarian approach to the workforce – people from different backgrounds e.g. poorer communities, migrant workers were given an opportunity. Bringing the railways back under public ownership can create opportunities for people – with training, education and support.

There will be devolution, and there will be powerful Passenger Transport Executive Groups. A people’s railways can allow diversity and integration.

Mick Whelan, General Secretary Aslef

The Labour Party has been opposed for 20 years to the policy of privatisation that the Tories brought in; we are only calling on them to carry out what is, already, official Labour Party policy. Privatisation is a policy that has utterly failed. John Major said privatisation would drive competition which, in turn, would drive cheaper fares. But fares have soared and are now the highest in Europe. They said it would also drive investment. But the major investment has come from the government.

All that taxpayers’ investment is now about to be wasted by the government by privatising Network Rail – and there are serious safety complications in that – which is why I think we must not give away what we already have. Population growth, and GDP, not privatisation, are responsible for the greater numbers on the railways. We have to take control of what we want – which is a publicly funded, publicly controlled, railway run as a public service and not for private profit. We want a model that ensures investment.

We want to look forward, not back. That’s why all this talk of British Rail is a canard. It’s not about curled ham sandwiches. And it’s not about under investment. So let’s talk about the public investment in all those private profits.

Q&A: With devolution – we need to ensure there are the right powers and budgets in place, devolution shouldn’t be about passing the cuts onto councils. We don’t want to go back to the days of underinvestment. On integration – at the moment ours buses don’t meet trains and 19 bus routes could be decimated with the introduction of the 24 hour tube in London.