Andrew Jones: Only a bold reform agenda will save the railways from Labour’s nationalisation fixation

Andrew Jones: Only a bold reform agenda will save the railways from Labour’s nationalisation fixation

Andrew Jones is MP for Harrogate & Knaresborough.

While highly harmful and disruptive industrial action has understandably dominated peers’ attention over the past six months, there is another issue with the railroad that our party must address — pushing through railroad reform and ending the problem for a generation.

Colleagues will be familiar with the concept of Great British Railways (GBR) but less clear as to what form this new railway idea will take and when the legislation to create it is due.

It has now been confirmed by Huw Merriman of the Transport Select Committee that we will hear an update on GBR from the Foreign Secretary on 7th February. But before that, I want to make it clear to colleagues what is at stake for our party and why we in the rest of this Parliament need to go ahead and get rail reform through.

Let’s start with Labour. We know they have recommitted the Corbyn-era policy of renationalizing the railways. How wholeheartedly the leadership is pursuing this policy we don’t know – certainly there is grassroots pressure to nationalize one of the nation’s most important industries.

But if they’re serious, we have to make sure that Deutsche Bahn doesn’t get caught in the crosshairs of the next general election.

Instead, we must point out that we have completed a robust package of reforms that have increased accountability and improved the customer experience. This starts with our railroads having reinvigorated a public-private partnership that bakes in the role of the private sector.

While the private sector has not gotten everything right and I recognize that colleagues today are concerned about the situation on certain routes (which is linked to outdated pre-pandemic labor practices), the private sector’s balance sheet still stands strong.

Over the past 25 years, private operators have more than doubled passenger numbers, achieved revenue growth twice that of GDP and turned an operating deficit of £2bn into an operating surplus in the years leading up to the pandemic. These records should inform future decisions about how the railway should be operated.

There are also more recent examples of what the private sector can do: Post-pandemic, operators like Hull Trains, Mersey Rail and Grand Central, which enjoy commercial freedom from the Department for Transport and strong revenue incentives, have grown faster than contract operators.

Independent research by business analyst Oxera estimates the Treasury is losing up to £1.6bn over two years due to restrictive contracts with operators. With the current strain on public finances, making more of such opportunities must be a priority.

But despite the clear achievements and potential of the private sector, the trajectory of some aspects of the plan track White Paper would reduce the role of the private sector and shift more of the cost burden to the taxpayer. Before privatization we had a decades-long decline due to a lack of customer focus and finally a smaller railway that the politicians felt was manageable for the public coffers.

Colleagues may know that former ministers – railway workers like myself and others – have published accounts of the content of the plan track to the government.

To be clear, we are not asking the government to go back to the drawing board and drop the white paper entirely. Rather, we want to ensure that operators look outwards at the customer and focus on their needs as a defining principle, rather than looking inwards for approval and approval by the authorities.

Which brings me to GBR. I think colleagues would agree that it is not in the interests of customers for Whitehall officials to make every decision about the railways. We don’t need a controlling public body to micromanage every decision about the railroad – we’ve had far too much of that in recent years as operators have been stuck to rigid DfT management contracts put in place during the pandemic and no longer deliver for the customer or the taxpayer.

Rather, what we need is a leaner and more strategic public body that will introduce more coherence and accountability and allow operators to do what they do best: bring customers back on track, to their needs in a post-Covid environment to react, namely with such means to increase sales.

So what I want to hear on February 7th is a clear plan, and then fellow parliamentarians to help the government push through any upcoming legislation.

Choices we make over the next 18 months could define railways for the next 30 years – and if we get it right, we could eliminate railways as a potential campaign issue and expose Labour’s renationalisation fixation as a plan that won’t do either the country or the taxpayer.

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