Event report: Chartist in Westminster debating public transport

Westminster debates Socialising Transport followed by Ham and Eggs

Nearly 30 people attended the launch meeting on February 11th for Paul Salveson’s Chartist pamphlet Socialisng Transport-A strategy for the Left  and his book Railpolitik (Lawrence and Wishart). We were elevated to the House of Lords for the event hosted by Labour’s Shadow Minister for Rail Lilian Greenwood MP.  It was a great mix of people, with old lefties, rail professionals, senior civil servants and the odd peer peering in as well (thanks Maurice Glasman ).

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Manuel Cortes, general secretary of TSSA, hotfoot from a temporary settlement to the London Underground staff strike over ticket office closures, gave a characteristically lively and un-prompted speech on rail politics which was very much appreciated. It was clear that there was very little difference between Manuel’s ideas on rail and Paul’s own, which stress devolution, local social ownership and exploring other ‘non-statist’ models for train operations whilst giving a guarded welcome to the re-nationalisation of Network Rail.

Lilian Greenwood gave a highly supportive speech (she is a fellow Boltonian with Paul) and made reference to her constituency’s Chartist past. Feargus O’Connor was elected MP for Nottingham back in the 1830s and it’s clear that the city still has a strong radical streak running through it .

Lilian said, “When it is properly supported, devolution has delivered real benefits to passengers – as the Hannah Mitchell Foundation has consistently argued. We support local accountability for rail, but over recent months there has been a worrying change of emphasis from the Department for Transport over the Northern and TransPennine franchises. Ministers almost seem to be saying: ‘Let us give up power and control – but not yet.’ We will support our Labour colleagues in the local authorities who have campaigned for change, and help them make the best of the partnership that has been proposed by the Department, but it’s vital that devolution does not become a dead letter.”

“……..we need to empower passengers, and I think that the work that Manuel and the TSSA are doing on community campaigning is an important part of achieving that goal. Devolution cannot just represent a transfer from distant Whitehall to a distant town hall.
“Through Community Rail Partnerships, ordinary passengers have proved that they can improve services, and even rescue failing services. From the great campaign to save the Settle-Carlisle Line, to rejuvenated rural branch services, we need to encourage that energy, and that spirit of local involvement, right across the rail network.”

‘As Railpolitik says, reform shouldn’t about trying to recreate a golden age. We need to defend what we have – which is why Labour has been clear that East Coast should not be reprivatised. East Coast has achieved record passenger satisfaction and punctuality rates; it has produced a much improved timetable; and it has invested every penny of profit back into its services. It was also the only Train Operator to reduce in fares in real terms this year. I’ve stood with TSSA members around the country who are campaigning against this ideological privatisation, and Labour will keep up the fight over the coming year.

We also need to build on other the strengths of the current network – such as the UK’s exceptional safety record in recent years, and the successful devolution of the old Silverlink services to London Overground

Paul Salveson outlined a vision for transport based on high quality integrated services delivered by a network of socially owned businesses whose main objective is not private profit but social benefit. For rail, Paul argued for keeping Network Rail in state hands but improving its governance. Train operating companies should be transferred into socially-owned companies which have strong representation of both passengers and employees. We should get away from the idea of train and bus companies and instead have integrated delivery which provides seamless journeys for passengers. There should be a re-constituted national InterCity complemented by regional operators similar to that in Germany. For bus services, we should recognise the success of municipal and socially-owned bus companies and develop an outstanding network of bus services which are modelled on the highly successful London model, based on quality contracts. he stressed the importance of cycling and walking in a coherent transport strategy, with a hierarchy in town and city centres which puts cyclists and pedestrians first.

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Christian Wolmar, occasional Chartist contributor and author of several books on transport politics and history, emphasised that a major ideological struggle over transport was raging. He questioned the whole concept of franchising, and was sceptical about community transport as the way to go, in the face of business hostility. Peter Whitaker, head of Rail Franchising posed the question: do we want rail to meet financial or economic criteria. Namely should profitability be paramount or wider economic benefits of infrastructure development, getting people to places on time and comfort. We weren’t quite sure where he stood although, Mike Davis (Chartist Editor and chair) made a strong defence of the new London Overground line along with Ray King of Railwatch who made the case for public transport as a public good requiring ‘state’ or social ownership and subsidy. Duncan Bowie, Chartist Reviews Editor made a powerful point that transport policy should be integral to wider planning strategy, but all too often was separate and unconnected.

Others pointed out that East Coast line was in the public sector, was operating a good service and that employees preferred this arrangement to a private ownership. Discussion also followed on whether all rail franchises should be taken back into some social/public model of ownership together or gradually as franchises came up for renewal, with East Coast line providing a good example to embarrass the likes of Virgin…Following Manuel and Paul’s lead, several contributors also spoke about deepening user and worker involvement to distinguish a new public rail from the old bureaucratic British Rail.

A number of the launch audience adjourned to the upstairs bar at the St Stephens’ pub (next to Westminster tube) for a hearty meal of Ham and Eggs (with chunky chips) washed down by some very nice Bitter.

Socialising Transport by Paul Salveson is available as a download here.

Railpolitik is published by Lawrence & Wishart 12.99.