Labour’s British Railways mark 2 is a dead duck

Back to the 1950s is no way to run a modern railway system, says Paul Salveson

Labour launched its new rail policy on April 1st. The most remarkable thing about the document is its timing, and I don’t mean April Fool’s Day. Four months after a general election and days before the announcement of a new leader seems an odd time to produce a major piece of party policy. Is the document some sort of ‘last gasp’ of Corbynism? The new shadow transport secretary, Jim McMahon, has not had much to say about this lengthy document, overseen by his predecessor as shadow transport secretary, Andy McDonald.

The essence of the approach is that Labour would reintegrate track and train and create a single, UK-wide body to be called GB Rail. For which you might as well just call it ‘British Railways’ and have done with it. There are concessions to devolution, with the creation of “devolved transport authorities” that look awfully like the make-up of 1940s style state corporations in miniature, matching the over-arching governance structure of ‘GB Rail’.

The document makes some legitimate criticisms of the privatised structure introduced by the 1993 Railways Act, which is pretty much a dead letter anyway, with coronavirus achieving what Corbyn and RMT never could – the effective re-nationalisation of the railways, with existing franchises being run on management contracts with the Department for Transport. This will be an “interim” measure, but how long that interim might be is an open question.

To return to McDonald Rail, it’s an example of the thinking which, despite protestations of Labour ‘winning the argument’, helped us lose the election. It’s as though the last fifty years never happened. Its ‘vision’ is far worse than the BR of the 1980s, which encouraged innovation and entrepreneurial drive. Working for ‘GB Rail’ would be a bit like working for an Eastern European railway in the 1950s, with orders despatched from on high by headquarters. Am I being a tad unfair? The proposed ‘Devolved Transport Authorities’ will have some powers but with such things the devil is very much in the detail. They would be overseen by ‘boards’ with allocated seats for the unions, passenger representatives and others. Business or regeneration agencies don’t get a look in. I suspect, if they ever came into existence (they won’t), they will be powerless talking shops.

A particularly bizarre suggestion is to bring rail freight under the control of GB Rail, reflecting the determination of the documents’ authors to leave not one jot of ‘privatised’ railway untouched. Freight transport is a competitive and highly complex business where the existing rail freight operators have had to fight for every tonne of traffic. Handing it over to a government bureaucracy means you can kiss goodbye to a lot of the traffic won for rail these last few years. I’m not sure where the ‘passenger benefit’ is from nationalising rail freight, nor for that matter the wider public interest. But it would make the unions happy.

And this is a very union-driven document. Some readers might welcome that, but where was the engagement with the user and community rail groups that have flourished on Britain’s rail network? The ‘community rail’ movement doesn’t get a mention – presumably such airy-fairy liberal concoctions won’t be needed in this brave new world.

There is an alternative to the privatised railway, which isn’t about going back to the 1950s. The current ‘interim’ nationalised railway offers an opportunity to look at alternatives which can build on rail’s green credentials and compete with road and aviation. ‘Enterprise’ and ‘competition’ are absent from the document yet rail is competing with the car and lorry above all. And Labour can’t nationalise cars and won’t touch road haulage. We need to find ways of making rail – and complementary transport such as buses and cycling – attractive options, not ones that you’re forced to make do with. And give incentives to the rail freight companies.

There’s a need for an overall ‘guiding mind’ in rail, but one that is light-touch and not heavy-handed. Rail operations need to be close to the market and able to respond flexibly to demands. Track and train need to be reintegrated. There are alternative models available to Labour, for rail and for other sectors, which don’t necessitate a return to post-war ‘austere socialism’. Existing franchises could be converted into mutual enterprises, there for the long-term, with governance models involving users, workers and other stakeholders.

Socialism should not be synonymous with state ownership and control. But we need particular sectors – rail being one – to be run in the interest of the public good and not private shareholders. At a time when even major private companies are asking themselves how they can move away from an excessive dependence on narrow profit, there must be an opportunity for the left to intervene with some positive ideas which reflect modern reality.

Labour’s new transport secretary, Jim McMahon, has a reputation for being an open-minded and progressive thinker, having achieved some good things when he led Oldham Council. He should read the ‘McDonald Rail’ document, take on board its criticisms of privatised rail and then bin it. There’s time to create an imaginative Labour transport policy based on engagement with workers, users, local authorities, the wider community and business interests.

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