Today the Labour party has launched a big assault on the Conservative Party under the title of #Railfail against the huge hikes in rail fares that have come into force today. On a very simplistic level, I am tempted to applaud the Labour attempts to portray the Tories as uncaring in their campaign. It is clearly great politics because it is an issue that is easy to understand and lets face it, no one likes having a fare hike coming out of their pocket.
But any campaign has to be honest. There are many things to criticise about the Tories policy on Transport, but we are appalled by the rather hypocritical stance that the Labour party is taking. Lets look at a few undisputable facts.
1. In 1997, Tony Blair lead Labour to the largest majority of modern times in Parliament. Public finances were in a strong position and it was clear that Rail privatisation was not working. Labour won three elections in a row. However they did absolutely nothing to reverse privatisation, apart from when private companies failed (most notably with Railtrack and the East Coast franchise). In Barnet, commuters suffered a truly awful period during the First Capital Connect era under Labour. I've had this discussion with several Labour supporters, who claim things will be different under a Corbyn led government, and that privatisation is definitely a priority. Personally I take the view that if they were serious about transport, then they would have details of a serious joined up, sustainable and deliverable transport future on the placards, rather than the current campaign. One has to presume that the Blair government looked at privatisation. The harsh truth is that Labour could have undone privatisation and didn't.
|Rail Fare increases by year|
2. Labour, The Tories and The Coalition all put fares up, this graphic shows that the biggest rise was under Gordon Brown (7.6% in 2009). The biggest problem in the relation to the UK and rail is the chronic under investment. There are all manner of schemes that would produce decent returns on investment and would massively improve the lot of passengers. Schemes such as Crossrail 2, The West London Orbital Railway, Midland Mainline Electrification, High Speed Trans Penine Routes, etc are all languishing awaiting funding. For us in The London Borough of Barnet, The Thameslink project is coming to an end, with all the disruption it has brought. London Bridge is reopened and in May we'll see more trains. Passengers will bear the brunt of the cost of this. If you asked any commuter from Mill Hill what the biggest problem is and they'd say boiling hot, packed rush hour services. Whilst cheaper fares may be desirable, they will do nothing to address this. Many passengers think they pay too much for a sub standard service, but most I know wouldn't mind the costs if you could get on the trains, they ran on time and they weren't roasting hot. If you use the "Finding a quieter train" app you will see that all Mill Hill Rush hour trains are packed to bursting. There is no quick fix to the funding issues that plague the railway. To pretend that a lower level of fare rise will make things better is clearly nonsense. Unless there were more trains, it would simply attract more people and make the situation impossible. The sad truth is that whatever a Labour government did on the transport front, there is no way anything would improve for several years and if there was an across the board fare cut, it could be a disaster.
3. The Labour Party rightly point to the fact that the Tories have baled out the failing operators of the East Coast franchise and that this has cost taxpayers a fortune. It is also correct to say that when the franchise failed before, it functioned better as a state run operation.
The videos being put out by Labour imply that a complete renationalisation of the network will solve all the problems. The evidence of the East Coast franchise on the face of it seems to back up the Labour campaign.
Today, the Tory Government and private train companies are putting up your rail fares by 3.6%. The steepest hike in 5 years.— Andy McDonald MP (@AndyMcDonaldMP) January 2, 2018
The next Labour government will bring our railways into public ownership to work for the many, not the few. #RailFail pic.twitter.com/XTKH67hS0T
Of course I have a huge amount of sympathy with this view, however Labour can't just give us these platitudes. Any renationalisation of rail would need to be properly thought out and may take decades to achieve, given the fragmentary way that the Tories broke up British Rail. Some aspects of British Rail, such as the technology and train building functions simply can't be brought back in house. In may ways, the infrastructure is already in private ownership under Network Rail. It must also be said that some of the private companies actually provide a decent service and the last thing that should be a priority for these should be to hoist huge management changes on them. My experience as a commuter shows that when the management changes on franchises (I've seen it three times) chaos ensues until the new management work out how to run the railway. The outgoing company also seems to stop training drivers etc, to maximise profits, resulting in all manner of chaos.
Labour should know this. If Andy McDonald was standing up and promoting a coherent plan to renationalised the network, in a sensible and structured way, starting with failing franchises and building up management competence then we'd have the basis of a good plan. For Mill Hill, moving Thameslink local services to TFL would be a far better way forward than to suddenly renationalise the whole of the rail network.
If we take off the rose tinted glasses, British Rail was not a golden age of rail. It was a long term project of managed decline. Whilst other countries such as France and Japan built High Speed Rail networks, the UK replaced dirty, polluting steam engines with dirty polluting diesel engines. Only the UK could modernise and upgrade a mainline railway, electrify it and then scrap the whole thing (the Woodhead Transpenine route). Thirty years later, we are looking at building a multi billion railway to simply reinstate that route. Much as we may hate rail privatisation, in terms of passenger numbers and investment, the period has been far more successful than the BR era.
Of course what Mr McDonald is seeking to capitalise on is our aversion to paying huge price rises to badly run private companies. This is clever politics, but without a clear, detailed and robust plan, explaining how funding will be maintained, how infrastructure projects will be implemented and financed and how issues of overcrowding will be addressed, it is all meaningless platitudes.
The Labour Party has an awful record on the rail network. The Tories is even worse. Short termism has been the order of the day for the last 70 years. In truth it is a miracle that full Thameslink is only being delivered 18 years late.
What I would like to see is a Royal Commission set up, to take a proper look at the UK transport infrastructure, including rail, air and road travel. I'd put it within their remit to examine models of management and ownership from around the world and work out the best way to fund, manage and rebuild our creaking infrastructure. At present we have all manner of controversial transport schemes. A new runway at Heathrow, HS2, Crossrail 2, Northern Powerhouse etc. There is no joined up thinking at all. We have airports such as Luton that don't even have a train station on site. We have abandoned railways such as The Woodhead route, with new schemes to rebuild parallel routes. There is a scheme to rebuild a railway between Oxford and Cambridge as part of the East West Rail scheme that will use polluting diesel traction. The government is planning £61 billion worth of new road schemes. A holistic view of all of this is what is needed. A coherent national transport plan, that all parties commit to and agree to fund. The Cameron governments seemed rather obsessed with huge schemes. I am convinced that a whole swathe of well planned smaller schemes, addressing bottlenecks, reopening closed lines and electrifying main lines would have delivered far more benefit, at far less cost than the HS2 project. It may well be that when we'd fixed the existing network, HS2 would have been needed, and the route should have been protected, but it is ridiculous that we will still have diesel trains trundling to Derby, Nottingham, Aylesbury and Cornwall whilst building such a highly controversial project.
What we are seeing from the Labour Party is a very one dimensional political attack that does nothing to move the debate from arguing over which sticking plaster the next government will apply to our transport system, to trying to fix the whole thing properly.