Labour pledges to renationalise most rail services within five years


Labour has promised to renationalise nearly all passenger rail services within five years if it wins the next election.

It says a new public body would inherit existing contracts when they expire, taking on responsibility for running services.

It is also promising automatic refunds for train delays, and better internet connection on trains.

But Rail Minister Huw Merriman said the plans were "pointless" and "unfunded".

He said Labour doesn't have a "plan to pay for the bill attached to their rail nationalisation", arguing it would eventually lead to tax rises.

Responsibility for running train services was handed to private companies during the 1990s, since when there has been a boom in rail usage since the days of British Rail.

But they have faced heavy criticism over fares and reliability, with critics saying it has led to an inefficient and fragmented system that has failed passengers.

The word "nationalisation" doesn't appear in Labour's plan, but that is what it in effect amounts to.

Under its blueprint, a new arm's length body, Great British Railways (GBR), would take over service contracts currently held by private firms as they expire in the coming years.

GBR would operate services and set timetables, and eventually take over responsibility for maintaining and improving rail infrastructure from Network Rail.

'Transparent and clearer'

But the party says GBR, like private companies now, would continue to lease rolling stock because it would not be "responsible" to take on the cost of buying it.

Labour is also not planning to nationalise rail freight companies, and would still allow privately financed "open access operators", such as Hull Trains and Lumo, to continue.

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said her party were not "ideologues" and that it was right to use private companies where they add value.

But she said the current system "was not working" and had led to delays and overcrowding.

Labour is also pledging to deliver "a best-price ticket guarantee" ensuring passengers automatically pay the lowest possible amount for tickets when making contactless payments.

Ms Haigh said the guarantee would not necessarily mean cheaper prices, but that the system would be "more transparent and clearer". The government has also said it wants to simplify ticketing.

She also said Labour had no plans to close ticket offices.

Covid shock

The government promised to set up a new public sector body in 2021, also named Great British Railways, which would be responsible for rail infrastructure and awarding contracts to private companies.

The plans have been delayed and although a draft bill to implement the proposal has now been published, it is unlikely to become law before the general election expected this year.

During the pandemic, the government in effect took control of the railway, with most train companies in England moving onto contracts where they get a fixed fee to run services, and the taxpayer carries the financial risk.

Four major operators, including TransPennine Express, have also been taken under public control and are being run by the government's Operator of Last Resort model.

Labour says there would be no cost associated with renationalising rail contracts, as they would not be terminated early.

It also argues that in the longer term, the greater efficiency of its rail system could save taxpayers "as much as £2.2bn".

It says the government estimated in the 2021 reform plan that it could save £1.5bn annually after five years by ending inefficiency and fragmentation.

The party says GBR would be "operationally independent" - although the transport department would have to agree to the biggest changes to services and infrastructure.

It plans to set up a new watchdog - the Passenger Standards Authority - to "mercilessly" hold GBR to account.

Asked how soon passengers would see the improvements to services Labour claim would result from taking train companies into its version of GBR, Ms Haigh said: "We know there are no quick fixes and we're not going to see enormous change overnight. It will take time to legislate and put the structural changes in place."

Louise Haigh
Labour's shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said there would be no "quick fixes" [BBC]

Asked how Labour would try to resolve the ongoing pay dispute with the train drivers' union Aslef, she said they would "sit down and work out" an answer, pointing out the transport secretary had not met the union since early last year.

She told the BBC her party would "always want to modernise the railways and working practices", but this needed to be "done in partnership with the workforce and not treating them as an enemy". She said Labour would not be separating reforms from the negotiations.

She did not say whether Labour would increase the pay offer on the table.

Andy Bagnall, chief executive of Rail Partners, which represents train companies, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme while he agreed there was a need for "radical change", nationalisation was not the way to achieve it.

He said the "best of both worlds" was to have Great British Railways as a public sector body, while harnessing private operators to "attract passengers back and regrow the railway".

This would ensure "the railway takes as little subsidy as possible", he said.

"That's the danger with nationalisation - we believe that without that commercial focus, costs would creep up over time, revenue growth will be slower and the taxpayer is the one that loses out."

Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson Wera Hobhouse said the Conservatives had "left commuters paying higher prices for poor services and endless disruption".

"The Liberal Democrats want a plan which puts commuters first by establishing the Great British Railway body after years of the government dithering."

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said Labour's plan to bring train operating companies into a publicly-owned network was "in the best interests of railway workers, passengers and the taxpayer".

But the plan "should be a first step to completely integrating all of our railway into public ownership," he added.

Banner saying 'Get in touch'

Are you affected by the issues in this story? Get in touch.

Bottom line for Get in touch request