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As the election start gun fires, rail is under the spotlight

As the election start gun fires, rail is under the spotlight

Rail Partners - As the election start gun fires, rail is under the spotlight
12 October 2023
Hannah Moxon, director of external affairs

Back in the summer, while planning for the party conference season, I, like many, would have been sceptical that rail would be a dominant theme at the likely final gathering of the political parties before the next general election. Despite the hiatus on reform, and what a potential change in government could mean for the railways, the wider mood music was about Prime Minister Rishi Sunak repositioning on net zero following the Tories’ retention of the Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat, and a focus on small boats crossing the Channel.    

However, the breaking news in the Independent that Sunak was planning to cancel the northern section of HS2, and the weeks of speculation that followed, brought the railway into sharp policy focus. Sunak finally clarified uncertainty about HS2 during his conference speech in Manchester where he unveiled his plans for ‘Network North’. In doing so, he upturned 15 years of cross-party consensus on rail infrastructure in one afternoon, and created a dividing line with Labour on whether they would stump up the money if they formed the next government.

Conspicuously absent

While rail infrastructure was a key focus in Sunak’s speech, the absence of a core message on rail in Secretary of State Mark Harper's contribution, raised more than a few eyebrows in the industry. The Transport Secretary, who had previously set out a clear vision for reform at the Bradshaw Address in February, instead focussed on starker political dividing lines of speed limits and low traffic neighbourhoods, where the Tories may look to attack Labour in the build-up to the next election.

But while the cancellation of HS2 north of Birmingham ‘sent a shockwave through the rail industry’, as our chief executive Andy Bagnall said in the Times, it also shone a light on the wider situation on the railways. The Financial Times published an article on the eve of Labour Conference stating that, in the aftermath of the HS2 cancellation, the rail industry is now fearful of the future. Andy was quoted saying that the railways may be heading for ‘an era of managed decline’ unless there is a commitment to pragmatic reform.

Thinking ahead

HS2 has undoubtedly raised rail up the policy priority list, and shifted thinking towards the long-term role the railway can play in Britain’s future. With the new Shadow Rail Minister, Stephen Morgan MP, in place, questions about the detail of the Labour Party’s nationalisation policy were on the lips of railway representatives gathering in Liverpool. 

Off the back of Labour’s by-election victory in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, and a continued national poll lead, the party is starting to think more about its policy catalogue, including rail. From the transport fringes I attended, and listening to the Shadow Transport Secretary, Louise Haigh MP, speak in the auditorium, you got a sense that Labour is starting to consider the next level of detail in their policy. While Haigh continues to bang the drum for creating a publicly controlled railway, she also said Labour will create a ‘single guiding mind’ for the railways, which is of course a central tenet of the ‘Plan for Rail’. Moreover, she made clear at a fringe that nationalisation would not extend to open-access operators like Lumo and Grand Central. Other Labour politicians, including metro mayors, Andy Burnham, and Steve Rotherham, praised their ‘publicly controlled’ public-private partnerships on bus and rail services in their respective cities.

With legislation to create Great British Railways not expected in the King’s Speech in November, and wider reform perceived to have stalled, Labour’s seeming desire to start fleshing out the details of its rail policy is welcome. Labour is right to want to improve the railway, but to misdiagnose the root problems will only make matters worse. During the pandemic, the majority of the passenger railway moved to centrally controlled contracts, which were right for the crisis, but are now hampering recovery. Labour’s policy of further centralising the railways against a backdrop of cost pressures and high inflation needs greater scrutiny. The party also needs to provide clarity on its plans for rail freight, which is key for reaching net zero.

Get the structures right

Rail can be a great enabler of green growth, opportunity, and investment. But it needs the right structures in place to deliver both for the customer, and the taxpayer. A railway that is affordable, punctual and delivers good customer service, must also be innovative, efficient, and able to grow revenues to reduce reliance on the taxpayer. A pragmatic public-private partnership can deliver this. What matters therefore is that all parties start focussing on what works, and the outcomes they want to achieve. As conference season draws to a close, the railway is facing an uncertain future. A national asset of this importance to the economy and the environment needs the ability to move forward from its current hiatus if it is to deliver better outcomes for the passenger, and freight customer, and compete with more polluting transport modes.

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