Labour’s rail reforms could get us back on track

Last week saw the Labour Party start to set out its stall for transport should it be elected as the next Government, when it published Get Britain Moving: Labour’s plan to fix Britain’s railways. This is quite a significant development as to date Labour has been very cautious about what it says publicly.

The good news is Labour acknowledges that the fragmentation of the rail industry is a bad thing and is setting out plans to address that. This is not before time. For far too long rail passengers have been left abandoned in the sidings. Even the current Government recognised there were issues, but its plans have faced more cancellations and delays than a Northern passenger. In many instances, it has made things worse, cutting services and failing to simplify ticketing. The latest ticket fiasco on LNER being a prime example.

Labour’s suggestion of the establishment of a powerful passenger champion would help drive change. Far too often passenger views are ignored. The Department for Transport (DfT) micro-manages the industry and missed the opportunities brought about by the pandemic to make long overdue changes. An example of the DfT’s failure is the notoriously uncomfortable and poorly designed seats on Thameslink trains that even the industry wasn’t keen on. With timetables being slashed and the DfT insisting on above inflation fare rises, things are in desperate need of change.

Sensibly, Labour recognises that it won’t be able to bring everything back into public ownership in one go. However, it will be able to insist on consistent standards across the network, cutting costs and improving flexibility. It is also keen to set up a pipeline of future contracts, particularly for rolling stock, to ensure stability and maintain employment within the UK. IN contrast, thousands of jobs are under threat with the current Government’s approach.

Labour is also proposing abolishing existing bodies such as Transport Focus and reshaping others such as the Office for Rail and Road (ORR). The latter would focus on rail safety, but would also be responsible for managing open access contracts. However, this role would seem to be better placed with the new passenger champion because open access is all about increasing capacity and choice, while potentially lowering costs.

There are wider questions about the future of the remains of the Office for Rail and Road. Labour’s plans provide the perfect opportunity to rethink the approach to national transport infrastructure and services and how these should be delivered. With the ORR and other Government bodies failing to hold National Highways to account, the time is ripe for wider reform.

One area in the document that received less attention was the statement on page 16, to set ambitious targets for modal shift. These should, of course, have been part of the Government’s 2021 Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP), but never were and the Government has since rowed back on the TDP with the Plan for Drivers, putting transport’s decarbonisation firmly at risk. Putting this into practice will require changing other policies, not least the National Networks National Policy Statement, which in its current form would undermine Labour’s commitments.

It is a positive start from Labour. Getting rail’s future back is essential to unlock homes in the right places, run transport on clean British energy and spread opportunity to all. Critical to all of this of course will be funding. Shifting people and freight to rail will require shifting funding from the failing roads programme to a bold rail enhancement pipeline.


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