On the right track

BryanDavies.jpgBryan Davies on allowing a public sector operator to run rail lines in the public interest

This afternoon I’ll be pressing an amendment to the Infrastructure Bill that requires the Secretary of State to publish a report on allowing a public sector rail operator to take on lines and challenge the train operators in the public interest.

Last Tuesday in the Lords, during oral questions, there was a debate on the future of East Coast rail franchise. The Minister responsible, LibDem Baroness Kramer, found herself defending the government’s indefensible position against attacks from all sides – including former Thatcher Cabinet Minister, Lord Forsyth. I hope however, that her response today will be different. We should learn the lessons of East Coast, where we have seen the benefits of a not-for-dividend operator running rail lines.

East Coast was brought back into public ownership in 2009, after the private operator reneged on its commitments. The service is now efficient, returning over £800m to the taxpayer and investing every penny of profit back into the company. It has also brought quality, achieving record levels of passenger satisfaction and punctuality; and a new timetable introduced in 2011 allows it to operate 7,000 more trains each year, with half a million more passengers. And it is a better deal for passengers, with this year’s price rise in fact reflecting a real terms cut – something no private franchise was able to do. In stark contrast, season tickets elsewhere have risen 30% since the last general election.

Despite all of this, the Coalition appears intent on pressing ahead with its privatisation of InterCity East Coast services. We know the Tories are unwilling to take a pragmatic approach on this issue. It is, after all, their 1993 Railways Act that effectively prevents a public sector operator, except in the most restricted circumstances. But it’s time to put an end to this rigid ideological approach, which has also seen Ministers trying to rush through a sell-off of their 40% stake in Eurostar – before we’ve even seen the conclusion of Lord Myner’s investigation into the botched sell off of Royal Mail.

My amendment today would give the government the opportunity to reflect and alter their stance. It’s time to learn the lessons of East Coast and legislate to allow a public sector operator to take on rail lines. Such an operator would be able to challenge other train operators in the public interest on a genuinely level playing field. That’s the way to secure the best deal for both passengers and taxpayers alike. I hope Baroness Kramer is able to accept this amendment and help us move quickly along that track.

Lord Bryan Davies is Shadow Transport Minister in the House of Lords

Published 3rd November 2014

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