How Far is Labour Willing to go on Rail?

First published in Shifiting Grounds: 24th August 2012

Much like the NHS, the health of the railways is one of the few aspects of British life that can draw passionate support from across the political spectrum. Engrained in British social culture, the railways brought the fruits of the industrial revolution to the nation and inspired successive generations of young enthusiasts to take to the railway bridges to spot their favourite engines. Apart from their status as a potent link to our past, rail travel remains a practical necessity for thousands of commuters up and down the country.

It is not surprising therefore, that the recent announcement of massive fair increases has led a chorus of alarmed voices calling for greater scrutiny of franchises, and even re-nationalisation. The strongest of which comes from Stephen Glover of the Daily Mail, who claimed the Coalition would be committing ‘electoral suicide’ if they allowed the fare increases to stand. Indeed, recently collected data by the Campaign for Better Transport demonstrates that a high proportion of marginal seats exist along commuter lines into London.

Newspaper columnists have long been united in their belief that rail privatisation was a grave error. Peter Hitchens once remarked that railways had required a ‘special spirit’ to make them work, and the private sphere does not nurture this spirit. “Privatisation, with its false promises, its so-called improvements which always seem to mean fewer seats on slower trains, its get-rich-quick managers and its elaborate system for buck-passing, has finally killed it [the spirit].”

In 2008, when Jon Cruddas put forward a proposal for re-nationalisation when he stood for deputy leadership of the Labour Party, Times columnist Rod Liddell mourned eight years of fare increases, and a missed opportunity by Labour. “We all remember the bad old days but they were better than today’s mess of delays, soaring fares and higher subsidies. It is either depressing or hilarious…to mull over the fact that the privatised rail network soaks up almost three times as much taxpayers’ money in subsidies than…British Rail.”

The ire of the newspaper columnist is matched by the public desire for greater government involvement in rail. A July 2012 poll revealed that nearly 70% of those asked would prefer greater public involvement in rail, with over 51% favouring outright nationalisation. Even Conservative supporters were found to prefer full nationalisation to any other option, with 46% favouring greater involvement and 31% favouring nationalisation. Just 12% favoured full privatisation, demonstrating that there is much to be gained electorally from a progressive rail policy.

Since the 2010 election, the Labour Party has examined the issue in greater detail as part of its policy review, with Cruddas now at the helm. In a Q&A at the 2011 TUC conference, Ed Miliband, in reference to East Coast Rail – which remains in public ownership following the withdrawal of National Express in 2009 – stated that Labour had to explore all of the options regarding “a way forward for rail services in this country, mutual options, public options, private options.”

These remarks were further elucidated in June 2012 by the release of Rebuilding Rail, a report produced by the union sponsored think tank ‘Transport for Quality of Life,’which put forward the case for re-nationalisation. Revealing was the fact that private investment was providing as little as 1% of total investment in railways. Lord Adonis, the former Labour Minister for Transport states, “in so far as there has been private sector investment by TOCs, that investment has been funded, let’s be clear, by the state and by passengers, either through revenue support or through fares.” Maria Eagle, the current Shadow Transport Secretary, was particularly supportive of the document, and reiterated that Labour was willing to consider all options on the issue.

With the news that Labour strategists are planning to trigger a backbench revolt among Conservatives by calling for ticket price rises to be cut, it appears Labour are positioning themselves in order to make rail a big issue at the next election. Though there is obvious political advantage for Labour to act against the government in this manner, it is crucial that they approach the issue sensibly. In proposing an alternative to the status quo, they must be careful to treat the rail network, a vital piece of infrastructure, with the respect it deserves. Re-nationalisation might well be the best course of action; however, it is not a decision that should be taken lightly, and all alternatives must be explored before a decision is made.

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