Andy McDonald MP: Rail has suffered a ‘colossal failure of political leadership’ after a decade of incompetence and mismanagement
Our rail system is unnecessarily complex, unaccountable and expensive, the Tories must be honest about failing rail contracts and turn off the life support, bringing rail operations and infrastructure back under public control, writes Andy McDonald MP.
When the Tory government announced its review of the railways in September 2018, I said passengers couldn’t wait yet more years for change. I stand by this statement. We’ve had more than 20 rail reviews since privatisation in 1995. They’ve all highlighted how the system is unnecessarily complex, unaccountable and expensive.
It’s very clear to me what needs to be done. We need a rail system which is simplified, accountable and affordable. Key to achieving this is unifying rail operations and infrastructure under public control.
I also said that the government’s review and its recommendations would be usurped by events. The Tory government has kept a number of rail franchise contracts on life support for political reasons. Arriva Rail North, First Transpennine Express, First/MTR South Western and Abellio Greater Anglia have all been described as zombie franchises.
All of these contracts were awarded by Tory Ministers. All are hanging by a thread, losing money and providing poor service. All of them are undeliverable with significant costs both to taxpayers and passengers. Yet successive Tory Transport Ministers have stood by and ignored these failing contracts.
A case in point is the long and terminal decline of the Arriva Rail North franchise which has been acutely painful for millions of rail passengers across the north of England. The company has fallen short on basic things such as recruiting, retaining and training staff particularly drivers which has led to the cancellation of thousands of train services over many years. It’s intolerable and unacceptable and it must not continue. Yet successive Tory Transport Ministers have let Arriva off the hook for five years and we still don’t know what plan, if any, the government has for the contract.
Tory Ministers must come clean and be honest about these failing rail contracts and turn off the life support. These franchises should immediately be taken over by the operator of last resort as a precursor to the creation of a single rail operation.
Labour has long advocated a model for rail where one unified public rail company at arms-length from government controls and operates both track and trains. Such a body can deliver the benefits of national integration alongside devolution while underpinned by a long-term strategy and vision. We believe this approach can rebuild faith and trust in Britain’s railways as well as providing affordable fares and better services for passengers.
The sad reality is that rail has suffered from a colossal failure of political leadership after nearly a decade of incompetence and mismanagement under the Conservatives. Rail passengers are crying out for leadership and accountability. It’s unlikely that the Tories have either the vision or wherewithal to deliver the meaningful change the industry so desperately needs.
Andy McDonald is a Labour Member of Parliament for Middlesbrough and Shadow Secretary of State for Transport.