Andy McDonald MP: Rail announcement masks the reality of another private sector bailout on East Coast mainline
Labour's Shadow Transport Secretary says the Government’s ‘strategic vision’ on transport is 'window dressing which will solve none of rail’s urgent problems'.
I agree with Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling that the railway runs better when track and trains work together as one. We can also concur on the need for investment and new capacity. Yet the complex and disjointed structure of the railways make it impossible for new investment and new capacity to absorbed in either a sustainable or affordable way. Track and trains cannot unite effectively under the current model.
The government has run out of ideas on rail and is standing by a system which is crumbling before its very eyes. Franchising is failing. Private companies don’t want to bid. Passenger numbers are falling.
The Strategic Vision for Rail announced this week by the government is an enormous smokescreen to cover up the fact that the East Coast mainline has failed for the third time in 10 years. Train operator Stagecoach was due to pay hundreds of millions in premium payments to the government between 2020 and 2023. By ending the franchise early the government has let the company off the hook for failing to deliver on its contract. No wonder the Stagecoach share price has seen a double figure rise today. The company got out of jail. The markets don’t lie.
Labour nationalised the East Coast franchise in 2009 and the company returned around £1 billion to the Treasury during its years of operation. East Coast could and should have been a benchmark for rail operations across the UK. Instead, this government couldn’t wait to give it back to the private sector before the 2015 election. It’s a case of third time unlucky for taxpayers who will foot the bill for this trio of failures.
This’s announcement reflects a government bereft of ideas on rail. The proposal for a joint venture on the East Coast line between track and train is a rehash of what’s been done before. It didn’t work on the South West Network so why will it work on East Coast?
The government plans to break up the notorious GTR Southern contract. It was always going to be broken up at the end of the contract in 2021 anyway so isn’t new. Chris Grayling’s calamitous oversight of the Southern debacle only adds to the urgent need to put the whole thing out of its misery for the sake of the passengers.
Mr Grayling has promised to reopen lines. He announced Oxford Cambridge a year ago. His new, privately funded line will operate with polluting diesel trains. It’s hardly 21st century infrastructure
Labour supports reopening lines but without tangible support the government’s proposals mean nothing in reality. All well and good to reverse the Beeching cuts but what about reversing the Grayling cuts? The Secretary of State’s cuts to rail investment in the Midlands, the North and in Wales.
The plans offer nothing for commuters on overcrowded trains facing a fare hike of 3.4% in January on top of the 27% rises since 2010.
The truth is that the rail system is broken. No amount of rearranging the furniture will change this central fact. I regret that the government cannot recognise or admit this.
Labour will put rail operations back together by ending franchising. We will unite operations and rail infrastructure under one roof in a united railway company which could be called GB rail. A company under public ownership. GB Rail will give rail the guiding mind the railway currently lacks and take key operational and strategic decisions. Rail needs to be accountable to government, taxpayers, passengers and the UK regions.
The government’s ‘strategic vision’ is window dressing which will solve none of rail’s urgent problems. Only Labour has the ambition and courage to give the railway the public deserves.
The public want public ownership of the railways and the next Labour government will deliver it.
Andy McDonald is the Shadow Secretary of State for Transport and Labour MP for Middlesbrough