Posted 24th April 2024 | 2 Comments

Labour unveils plans for Great British Railways

► Publicly owned GBR to be run by experts, ‘not Whitehall’
► Remaining passenger contracts will be allowed to expire
► Open access passenger and freight operators to continue
► New Passenger Standards Authority to become watchdog

The Labour Party has unveiled the first details of its plans for Great British Railways, if it wins the General Election.

The idea of GBR becoming a ‘guiding mind’ for the rail industry, as recommended by Keith Williams in the 2021 Rail Review, would be strengthened to 'directing mind' and confirmed by the passing of a new Railways Act.

Labour is also announcing plans to ‘seize on the huge economic potential of rail freight’ and ‘deliver a new long-term strategy for train manufacturing’ as part of the party’s commitment to a comprehensive industrial strategy.

Speaking at a launch event, shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said that Labour’s plans will ‘put the passenger first’ with a best-price ticket guarantee, automatic delay repay and digital season tickets.

It would also establish a powerful new passenger watchdog, the Passenger Standards Authority, to hold Great British Railways to account and also make significant savings for the taxpayer by eliminating fragmentation, waste, bureaucracy and by stopping profits ‘leaking’ to private sector companies.

GBR itself would be ‘unified, publicly owned, accountable and arm’s length, led by rail experts, not Whitehall’.

The transition to public ownership should be completed within the government’s first term by ‘folding existing passenger contracts into the new body as they expire, without the taxpayer paying a penny in compensation costs’.

Devolved leaders, including Mayoral Combined Authorities, would have a statutory part to play, allowing decisions about the railways to be taken ‘closer to the communities they serve’.

Labour would also ‘support successful open access and freight operators to continue to deliver, and set clear objectives and targets for passenger services and freight growth’.

Louise Haigh said: ‘Labour will deliver the biggest overhaul to our railways in a generation. Whilst the Conservatives are content to let Britain’s broken railways fail passengers, Labour will deliver root and branch reform.

‘After years of dysfunction and waste our broken railways are unfit to meet the needs of modern Britain. Passengers and taxpayers alike are being failed, and our economy is being held back. Doing nothing is simply not an option.’

Andy Bagnall, who is chief executive of the private sector lobby group Rail Partners, has expressed reservations about Labour’s plan..

He said: ‘Train companies agree that change is needed for the railways, but nationalisation is a political rather than a practical solution which will increase costs over time. Creating a thriving railway for customers and taxpayers does not have to be an ideological choice between a monopoly railway in public hands and one that delivers private investment and innovation through franchising.

‘There is an alternative plan which gives the best of both worlds and is already being used by Labour Mayors and increasingly across Europe.

‘To change the railway for the better, we must correctly understand the causes of the current situation to get the right solutions. Since the pandemic, train companies have been effectively renationalised and subject to a level of micromanagement by government not even seen under British Rail. Exclusively blaming train companies for all the challenges facing the railway doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.’

Railway Industry Association chief executive Darren Caplan said: ‘We welcome the pledge to make rail reform a priority early in the next parliament, which would give certainty to our members about the future structure of the railway industry, and also the commitment to a long-term strategy, which RIA has been calling for in recent years. It is also positive that rail is recognised as essential to economic growth, integrated transport connectivity, levelling up the nations and regions of the country, and in helping to deliver Net Zero; and that there is a need to deliver value for money for the taxpayer in rail.

‘We now look forward to hearing others’ contributions to the debate.’

Reader Comments:

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  • david C smith, Bletchley

    It emerges that these manifesto items from the Labour party in many ways match a system such as I've advocated for some while. Where I think we diverge is they beleive in Command and Control by Quango type organisations, whereas I'd much prefer that non - monopoly TOCs make their decisions in response to market - forces , retaining their own freedom to invest and operate. The monopoly operators, though, with their captive markets do need an external regulator / controler.

    Whatever the theory, recent history has often demonstrated that an incentivising approach works better than command and control. Otherwise, I'm quite pleased with this manifesto.

  • david C smith, Bletchley

    Let me say straight away that I'm politically a long- standing "floating voter"; as such, it appears to me that all the attempts, in 1923, 1948 and 1994 to improve the situations of our rail industries have not worked well.

    Mostly it seems the imposition of party- doctrinaire nostrums have caused more problems than they solved. Nationalisation the first time round involved the then ministery of transport, through the British Transport Commission, with Parliamentary Accountability, None of these worked well, Could parliament be diverted onto being overseeer of problems , when it has other full time jobs already ?

    All public or all private sector can never be the answer , as the railway is a collection of diverse "Sectors", some of which need to be in the public sector,where there is an inescapable natural monopoly involved ( eg commuter and local ), whilst others ( Intercity and long distance ?) would perform better as several competing commercial organisations .