Labour’s Plan For Rail: The First Of The Big Ideas?

Labour's plans for changes to the railways received significant media attention. Whilst the number of bus journeys is huge, rail dominates attention. By developing a plan for rail, Labour has taken back control of the transport debate.

Since the railways were privatised under the Conservatives led by John Major, passenger growth and safety have been impressive. But negative perceptions remain about rail. Looking at Transport Focus's 'Rail User Survey, March 2024' shows that concerns about reliability, overcrowding, value for money and internet connections persist. That is not to mention the complex ticketing system which few understand. One of previous Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's really popular policies was the nationalisation of the rail system.

Louise Haigh, Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, had already promised "the biggest reform of public transport in a generation" so this document had to prove that point. Coming hot on the heels of commitment that 'a Labour Government will pass new legislation to support local transport authorities to take back control of their bus services' it is now the turn of the railways.

Issuing Getting Britain Moving: Labour's Plan to Fix Britain's Railways put Haigh in the spotlight, allowing her to explain how a Labour government would fix the problems passengers identified.

At the heart of the plans is to ensure public ownership and control of passenger franchises. Some have interpreted this as being nationalisation but that is not the case. Both the freight system and rolling stock will remain in the private sector.

Could the public sector procure its own rolling stock? Yes. Just look at the example of Merseytravel. But the reality is that Labour's Treasury team does want to take on the costs associated with rolling stock.

Another important feature of the proposals is the establishment of the Passenger Standards Authority bringing together Transport Focus, the Rail Ombudsman and parts of the Office of Road and Rail.

Together with Great British Railways, these bodies will lead the sector. The role of Secretary of State would be as 'passenger-in-chief'. Far from having had enough of experts, Labour's plans emphasise rail professionals and industry experts in leading and providing operational independence.

This is an implicit recognition of the lack of trust in politicians and government. Whilst the public do not see that the free market has worked, they also do not want MPs running the railways! Whilst the word 'nationalisation' is not even mentioned in the plan, the role of experts is another way of also trying to show that this is not a re-creation of British Rail (not that it didn't have experts involved). The plans want to avoid any impression of the new system having a statist view of railways, simply being run from Westminster.

One of the criticisms of Keir Starmer's mission-led approach is that it lacks big ideas to capture the public's imagination in the run-up to a General Election. There is no risk of that accusation being levelled against the party's plans for rail. Whether it signifies the start of more big ideas can be debated but to deliver the plans, there will be a new Railways Act, with the Bill introduced in the party's first King's Speech if they enter government.

It has to be remembered that this is only Stage One. There remain a whole host of transport challenges that the party has yet to look at. They know that, but they have also shown that they understand how to outmanoeuvre the Conservatives and take political ownership of transport.

They also see that 'a well-functioning transport system is crucial for economic growth and productivity'. That suggests that, crucially, the Treasury team are on the same page.

However, will there be the same unanimity of approach when the first sign of pressure comes on local Labour MPs about rail services, stations, frequency of services etc.? How will they react? When a Bank Holiday rail issue arises, how will Ministers respond?

Those responses will really tell us about the railways' independence and freedom from political interference.