Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal for a People’s Railway has sparked interest and support, tinged with more than a little nostalgia for a past that really didn’t exist. Those who hanker after British Rail were clearly not there. It was the butt of national jokes about punctuality, cancellations, strikes and stale sandwiches. It was also serving a transport market very different from today. Rail journeys in Britain have doubled since 1997 and are set to continue rising rapidly. Freight traffic increases every year too. Our rail lines are the busiest and most intensively used in Europe if not the world. Britain has the only growing rail market in Europe. So when people adversely compare our structure with that in France or Germany it is worth remembering that they are declining businesses while every aspect of Brtish railways is growing fast and needs to do so, because of our growing population and if we are to have a successful economy.
As Liberal Democrats we strongly support the railways for environmental reasons and we advocate major investment, which is decades overdue. We are lagging behind most of the rest of Europe on both electrification and high speed lines. But that is down not to the private ownership of our railways but to the lack of long term vision and investment in infrastructure by successive governments. In the Coalition Government we were responsible for introducing the biggest programme of investment in rail since Victorian times. If we had been in government alone we would have invested even more and we will fight for every inch of track which is currently under threat from the Tory Government’s “Pause” on big rail projects.
What we will certainly not do, is to call for the Government to spend tens of billions of pounds to buy back the railways from the private sector. Corbynomics will not solve the problems on our railways but instead drain investment from the industry. What customers worry about is the quality of service, not who owns it. We believe in business and the power of competition to get the best outcome for customers. But it must be competition that is properly structured and strongly regulated and there are plenty of aspects of the current set-up that fail these tests and we want to change.
Network Rail is government owned and I believe the Government’s plan to reprivatise it has more to do with dogma than efficiency. Many of its current problems were inherited from their privately owned predecessor Railtrack. Network Rail needs reform not another change of ownership with all the disruption that brings. Above all we need major investment in new track, dualling schemes, electrification, reopening some old lines, new signalling systems to allow more frequent trains and HS2 of course. And we need investment in skills, both technical and managerial. Passengers, particularly commuters, are rightly angry about overcrowded trains and we need all these investments if we are to provide the extra services and seats we need.
There are many ways in which we should improve the franchising system and I would argue these can be easily implemented under the current system and would lead to major improvements in the quality of service. It’s largely to do with how you write the contract and in the past, not enough emphasis has been put on quality issues. Public sector transport authorities as well as the private sector should be able to bid for franchises. Indeed devolution of rail powers and provision is on the way in several areas. Why shouldn’t the South East of England or Greater Manchester operate on a Transport for London model where the only publicly owned piece is the Tube and all the rest is franchised, but the powers are there to ensure an integrated and efficient system? And there are a host of other things which can transform our railways – smart ticketing, modernised and safer stations, and a more transparent fare structure, just for starters.
Corbyn’s “Back to the Future” proposals concentrate on the ownership not the customer. I believe our railways need investment and train operating companies need to put more effort into improving life for passengers, and that needs big money and long term vision, not a change of ownership. Make no mistake our railways are thriving, and that is their problem.
* Jenny Randerson is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, and is the party’s front bench spokesperson on transport.