Labour will aim to take back all rail franchises into public ownership in the first term of a future Labour government, said shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald, speaking at a fringe meeting at Labour’s annual conference in Brighton last night (22.9.19), Andy Walker reports from Brighton.
McDonald highlighted his party’s plans to return rail to public hands during a wide-ranging discussion in which he pledged Labour’s support for electrification, praised Crossrail, stressed his qualified support for HS2 and argued for a joined-up approach to solving regional rail connectivity challenges.
“The argument is over on rail nationalisation – everyone knows it and there is widespread public support for Labour’s plans,” McDonald said. “Instead of the public sector entering into the fray as operator of last resort, we will bring rail franchises back into public ownership and have an arm’s length public company running the railway,” he said. McDonald said that this would be done in conjunction with the devolved bodies in Scotland and Wales and also the sub-regional groupings like Transport for the North.
“We will take back the franchises as they come to the end of their terms and we have said that we want to do this within two terms of a Labour government,” McDonald said. “However, I know that John McDonnell wants to accelerate this process and I hope we can do it in a single term. In fact, the sooner we can do it the better,” he said. McDonald said that he wanted to let the professionals run the rail sector as part of the public sector under a Labour government.
Turning to Crossrail, McDonald said that despite its challenges, the project was a significant achievement that would be make a real difference to passengers in London and beyond. Many large-scale projects had challenges but when people see the output of Crossrail, they won’t be focused on those, McDonald claimed.
Labour’s shadow transport minister also made a passionate plea for a major overhaul of the ticketing system, which he claimed was no longer fit for purpose in a digital age. “If you look at how easy it is to travel across London now with smart ticketing and compare that with what we have elsewhere then it’s clear that the ticketing system needs a radical overhaul,” he said.
On HS2, McDonald said that he hoped that the current review of the project would come to a sensible conclusion that would enable the project to go ahead in the right way. “We started from the wrong place geographically and the recent House of Lords report has recognised this,” he said. “We need more investment in rail connectivity in the north because it’s clear that the conventional railway cannot cope with demand. We have to have ambitious projects but there has to be a more joined-up approach,” McDonald claimed.
“This goes way beyond transport. There is a lot of cynicism and anger from people who are sick and tired of only being offered the fag end of the infrastructure investment cycle and then finding out that they’re not even getting the fag end,” he said. “If we are not careful then we are brewing up wider problems than connectivity issues and we need to be aware of that and take the right action,” McDonald said.
McDonald was speaking at The Rail Interview event, organised by the Rail Delivery Group, High Speed Rail Industry Leaders and the Railway Industry Association.