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Passengers want action on the railways – not more prevarication

Passengers want action on the railways – not more prevarication
4 min read

Yet another review lets Chris Grayling off the hook. If the government doesn’t know by now what is wrong, then quite frankly they should move over, says Rachael Maskell

Whenever the secretary of state for transport is found wanting, he leaps for the cover of a review. The question is, just how many “far-reaching”, “sweeping” and “root and branch” reviews do we need?

It is action that passengers are calling for, not more prevarication to cover up what the public already knows – the franchise rail system is broken; the segregation of infrastructure and operations does not work; resources are going to the wrong place; and governance is unaccountable and opaque. It sucks resources and creates barriers to stop our rail network integrating and working together.

Over the last eight years McNulty, Brown, Shaw, Hendy, Bowe, Laidlaw and Hansford, to name but a few, have all reviewed our railway system, so it isn’t that we don’t know what is wrong. The failure sits with the recommendations not being addressed.

Last year Chris Gibb produced a damning report over the governance and running of Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), and yet this service has continued to limp forward from one crisis to the next. A further review has supposedly been carried out this summer, with the government letting the contract run, when it is evident to passengers that GTR should be stripped of its franchise.

As the government kicks the can down the road with Keith Williams, who will be chairing this latest review over the next year, Labour has spent time working across the rail sector to understand the challenges, and to build confidence in our alternative programme for our railways.

Labour will bring about very clear lines of accountability and effective governance across the network, bringing the whole service into one place, a public body, run in the interest of passengers, not for those with vested interests and shareholders; and we certainly will move away from the daily meddling by ministers, such as has been at the heart of the problems witnessed over the last few years.

There have been too many people who have put their own financial and political interests ahead of those of passengers and the smooth running of a service.

There is so much that is failing the public. This last week we have learned of the scandal that operators are robbing passengers to pay their shareholders, highlighted by the Virgin-Stagecoach debacle, while the secretary of state lets them off paying their £2bn deficit created by the collapse of the East Coast mainline franchise. Passengers are having to pay a levy for this – a 36% increase in their ticket prices since 2010.

All this is creating the worrying shift of driving passengers away from rail back to their cars. Falling passenger numbers have to be addressed and a year-long review will do little to rebuild the necessary confidence the public is seeking.

After a summer of rail chaos, the public would expect a rail expert to drive any review forward. Keith Williams does not have that experience, and he is not being provided with the time and resources to take the deep dive into this broken system that the secretary of state claims is needed.

Labour also understands that the government has been challenged to find a team to sit on his panel. There is simply no appetite to retell the government what the public, rail experts, industry bodies and Her Majesty’s Official Opposition have been spelling out for years.

My analysis is this: the government has forgotten to ask the basic questions as to what our rail service is for. Paralysis, confusion and uncertainty is the last thing that is needed at this time, and yet the secretary of state’s ‘tactics’ to shy away from his own failure will result in another year of rail chaos.

If the government doesn’t know by now what is wrong, then quite frankly they should move over for a government that has already done this analysis and put the solutions in place.

Rachael Maskell is Labour MP for York Central and shadow minister for transport

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