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Open Access Summit won't derail Labour’s public ownership rail plan

By Greg Rosen
11 April 2023
Public Affairs

This week’s call for the Transport Secretary to call a “train industry summit” to promote open access rail routes comes at a pivotal moment for the rail industry. Beset by industrial action and beleaguered by the tidal wave of passenger frustration, the industry faces the prospect of a likely Labour government within two years committed to public ownership of the railways.

The fact that Keir Starmer’s determined defenestration of Corbyn-era policy commitments has failed utterly to change Labour’s commitment to public ownership of the railways reflects the scale of the twin challenges facing the rail industry: of public image and public policy.

Of public image because the industry has failed over more than two decades of privatised rail to build sufficient public support for and confidence in the merit of privatised rail over public rail. Of public policy because the industry has (with three main caveats) – also failed to develop a coherent policy prospectus for how that public image challenge can be addressed. Until and unless these challenges are addressed, the preponderant voter pressure on politicians will be to move to some form of publicly owned rail.

The caveats are these. Firstly, HS1, whose reputation as a well-run privately operated railway has not yet been effectively harnessed by the rail industry to make the wider case for how a rail line can be privately operated and run well. Secondly, the tremendous achievement of the re-opened GWR Dartmoor Line from Exeter to Okehampton (closed by an unimaginative and inadequately managed publicly owned and run British Rail in 1972), contrasting with HS2 in having opened on time and under budget, to levels of local support above and beyond what most UK infrastructure projects are thought to enjoy, with greater volumes of ridership and revenue than predicted, and demonstrably effective cross railway collaboration including between GWR and Network Rail. Indeed, the main criticism levelled has been why government took so many decades to give such a brilliantly successful project the green light, and why so few similar schemes are being given the green light. The third caveat is the popularity and success of many of the open access routes.

Arriva MD David Brown told the Times: “There’s good reason open access operators have been more successful than contracted operators in winning customers back post-pandemic. We can make strategic, customer-focused, commercial decisions that deliver growth. We have that commercial drive and yield management expertise.”  Ironically, this pithy encapsulation of their success highlights also the wider challenge they face: Labour and many others see the successful open access operators as the same operators who they do not perceive as so successful on other franchises.  And it is those other franchises that provide the vast majority of the lived rail experience of most passengers. No summit to expand the numbers of open access routes is likely to change that, though on those small numbers of extra routes better services may come.

The real challenge – and opportunity  – for open access operators and the private rail industry is to explain how the rail system can be re-engineered so that the skills, expertise, focus and consequent consumer satisfaction that many open access operators have brought to their routes can be brought to all those other routes, to the overall experience of most UK rail passengers, and to build a compelling narrative for that.

Labour under Starmer has shown it is open to embracing the innovation and energy that can come from effective private operation of public utilities in the public interest. It has moved away in most sectors from the dogmatic pursuit of state ownership of public utilities that was the hallmark of Corbyn’s Labour. The exception has been rail. 

The rail industry has an opportunity to show how private ownership and operation can bring benefits – and the success of the open access services is key to that. But the rail industry needs to explain not just how that benefit can be extended via a few more open access services. When the vast majority of passengers won’t be using those services, the rail industry needs a compelling narrative for the mainstream majority, for the commuters and longer distance travellers who will always use “regular rail” for want of a better term, which may be run by a different branch of the same operator that successfully runs a high-popularity open access route. If that operator can persuade its “regular rail” passengers that it is part of the solution to a better UK rail, not part of the many problems, then Labour may become more open to their playing a role in the future of UK rail. But as the next election approaches, the window for doing so is closing fast.