Can Labour get on track?

Greater Manchester has taken control of the local bus network

As the Tories implode, it’s time for some fresh thinking from Labour on transport, says Paul Salveson

Every aspect of Government policy is in a state of chaos. Transport is no exception. Truss was already proving to be a disaster for transport, pursuing a pro-roads policy that was threatening to take us back to the ’70s. What will emerge from the current shambles is anyone’s guess, though one potentially positive outcome might be the scrapping of HS2, at least north of Birmingham. What I’d like to focus on here are the opportunities for Labour in crafting a progressive transport policy which is both deliverable and goes beyond the simplicities of ownership. We’ve had the experience of several public train companies, and it’s debatable whether their performance has been that much better than the private operators. Success, failure or just mediocre performance is not reducible to whether a company is publicly owned or not.

Labour is already doing some quite exciting things on transport, led by Wales and the Labour-controlled combined authorities across England, particularly Liverpool, Greater Manchester, South and West Yorkshire, and Tyne and Wear. West Midlands is an interesting case – a combined authority with a Tory mayor who is doing many of the things you’d expect a Labour leadership to do. What the combined authorities and the devolved nations demonstrate is that a progressive transport policy must recognise the complex and diverse world in which we’re now in, with mayoral combined authorities getting on and doing positive things, with scope for doing more if they had the powers. Greater Manchester has already taken powers to control the bus network, reduce fares and potentially take control of stations. Labour has got to learn from these achievements and avoid the danger of going for a centralised approach in which the regions are sidelined.

This means ceding power to regional bodies within England (which Scotland and Wales already have). It doesn’t make sense for local transport to benefit from strong combined authorities while neighbouring shire counties or poorly resourced unitary authorities struggle on as best they can. The starting point for building a dynamic local and regional transport system, making the most of rail, bus and light rail, is having the right structures in place. The most sensible approach is to extend the existing combined authorities beyond their current boundaries to create a system of English regional government, which have elected authorities (rather than just elected mayors) in control.  For example, the existing Greater Manchester authority should extend northwards to include what remains of ‘Lancashire’ – and perhaps rechristen it ‘Lancastria’. Neighbouring Liverpool city region could take in a wider area.

If the right structure is in place, the regions could make a big difference. Experience has already shown that some good things can happen even with existing relatively limited powers. Whilst Greater Manchester has majored on bus policy, neighbouring Liverpool has gone out and bought a whole fleet of new trains to operate on its Merseyrail network. This has resulted in getting trains that are one third cheaper than if the authority had relied on the market – ie, the rolling stock leasing companies. They have also got new trains that are more passenger-friendly, the result of detailed consultation with passengers.

The next step is fairly obvious, and again, Liverpool – and Wales – already offer a model: being directly responsible for the local rail network. Liverpool has long had responsibilities for franchising local services on the Merseyrail network but has only been able to contract with a private operator (Serco and Abellio). Wales, however, has taken its domestic passenger services in-house with a train operator owned by the Welsh Government. So has Scotland.

A Labour secretary of state for transport needs to support these initiatives with maximum energy and resist the temptation to recreate British Rail. There needs to be a national network with a core InterCity network, but there is scope for trying different approaches. In general, it makes sense for Network Rail to continue as the owner of the infrastructure. However, in some areas, it could partner with a train operator to provide a more unified rail operation which avoids some of the costs of duplication in a wide range of services. Try it in one or two areas first, eg Merseyside and West Midlands.

With longer distance InterCity services, there is scope for looking at a range of social ownership options ranging from state-owned route-based companies, such as we already have with LNER on the East Coast Main Line, to co-operative structures, eg for Great Western or the troubled West Coast Main Line, with employee and passenger ownership options. An incoming Labour government could do these things quite quickly and ensure long-term stability and investment, which is what the railways desperately need. Leave freight alone, other than incentivising the operators through continuing low track access charges and capital grants for wagons and terminals which could go to local authorities.

Compared with rail, buses are easy and offer perhaps the biggest immediate gains. Franchise local networks but encourage social and municipal ownership – a few bus companies are still owned by local authorities and are doing very well. Finally, the big bullet to bite is overall dependence on the car – if we’re serious about really addressing climate change.

Paul’s new collection of short stories set on the railways of the North of England, Last Train from Blackstock Junction, is available from Platform 5 Publishing.

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