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Big changes coming down the track, Labour’s plan to fix Britain’s railways

Public Affairs

Today, the Shadow Transport Secretary, Louise Haigh, has outlined sweeping changes to Britain’s rail system, planning a renationalisation of most passenger rail services within just five years of Labour taking office.  

Ironically, at the heart of Labour’s plan is a much-delayed Conservative plan to establish Great British Railways (GBR), a public body that would take responsibility for all rail infrastructure. Labour, meanwhile, has taken the barebones of these proposals, known as The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, and beefed them up to go even further. Today’s announcements will ultimately bring nearly all the contracts for passenger rail services under the management of GBR. Plans for a new rail watchdog, the Passenger Standards Authority, was also announced, combining the Office of Rail and Road with Transport Focus to “mercilessly” scrutinise GBR. 

Without wanting to contradict their 2021 plan, the Conservatives have inadvertently given some credibility to Labour’s proposals, with the Williams-Shapps Plan stating that GBR would save £1.5 billion a year by cutting inefficiencies and fragmentation – a figure Labour gladly borrowed for their plan. Co-author of the Conservative rail plan, Keith Williams, even offered an endorsement of Labour’s proposals saying they would take forward the bulk of his recommendations, including a similar simplified fares process and a more straightforward compensation scheme.  

The plan is part of a recent wave of policy announcements from Labour, including on planning and worker’s rights, as they attempt to counter the narrative that the party is too thin on big reform. In a moment of rare alignment both trade unions and the Conservatives have explained, however, that this is no straightforward nationalisation. The plan will not include freight or “open-access” services like Lumo or Hull Trains, nor will it include the acquisition of privately owned rolling stock due to its huge upfront cost. A point that was welcomed by the rolling stock firm, Porterbrook, and bemoaned by the RMT Trade Union, who said in future, Labour “needs to win control of the rolling stock procurement and ownership.” 

Despite this, the reactions from unions have broadly been positive. Private train operators, however, are unsurprisingly disappointed. The CEO of Rail Partners, which represents operators, said that although “radical change” was needed, nationalisation “will create a prolonged and messy transition”. The Conservative’s response has been focused on funding and potential leasing costs, with Rail Minister, Huw Merriman attacking Labour for not “having a plan to pay for the bill.”  

The rampant debt of Britain’s rail services in recent years means that quite a lot of them are already in public ownership. Network Rail came under state control in 2014, and the Department for Transport’s operator of last resort is already running LNER, Northern and Southeastern services. Labour is betting that with a general election on the horizon, people may vote with such dismal rail performance in mind, for a more radical solution.