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Local elections 2023 – the last electoral test before the general election sets the stage for rail reform

Local elections 2023 – the last electoral test before the general election sets the stage for rail reform

Rail Partners - Local elections 2023 – the last electoral test before the general election sets the stage for rail reform
09 May 2023
Hannah Moxon, director of external affairs

To little surprise, Saturday’s coronation of Charles III and Camilla somewhat overshadowed the local elections last week. The results – which saw Labour make some gains, the Tories suffer big losses, and the Lib Dems make ground in the ‘blue wall’ – suggest a hung parliament, or a small majority for Labour at the next General Election – they certainly don’t point to either Labour or the Tories having a large majority.

Now the royal regalia is being packed away, and politicians start to file back into Westminster after coronation recess, the attention of those advocating for key economic sectors, like rail, turns to what the results mean for political parties priorities, 12-18 months before the next national poll.

For Rail Partners, our focus continues to be on building a consensus in Parliament on the creation of a reinvigorated public-private partnership on our railways. This partnership needs to balance the need for oversight and accountability in the public sector with the commercial expertise of the private sector, to deliver for both customers, and the taxpayer.

While major policy divergences on rail still exist – significantly, the three main political parties, the Conservatives, Labour, and the Lib Dems, have all, in recent years, identified the need for a strategic public body to oversee track and train, and a consensus on the economic and environmental benefits of rail freight is emerging. More generally, you would be hard pressed to find an MP who doesn’t want more rail for their constituency, and the country more broadly.

It is easy to fixate on the parties’ divergences around ownership, which dominate the headlines (along with industrial action), but with the railway on a financially unsustainable trajectory coming out of the pandemic, and passengers and freight customers demanding rapid improvement, it is crucial to make progress on rail reform where agreement in the Commons already exists.

First, let’s take a look at where the three main parties stand on the creation of a ‘guiding mind’ for the railways.

The Conservatives, who clearly had a bad night at the local elections, and may struggle to secure a majority at the next national poll, have been on a journey with rail reform. Since the last General Election, the party has had three Secretaries of State for Transport, each with a varied interpretation of how to best achieve reform. Yet, since Mark Harper was appointed, and delivered the George Bradshaw Address in February, the party has set a clear direction on reform by recommitting to the creation of Great British Railways (GBR), as envisaged in the Williams review, to coordinate the network and oversee a pragmatic partnership between the public and private sector.

Progress on the design of GBR and contractual reform is ongoing. Key to unlocking meaningful rail reform is a Transport Bill in the King’s Speech in October. Even though parliamentary slots will be tight, the case for the right type of legislation to stabilise the industry is pressing, as I argued in March.

Labour, which made gains in key target areas, yet does not have a clear path to a majority, continues to have a headline rail policy to take operators back into public ownership as their contracts expire. Rail Partners’ recent submission to the party’s National Policy Forum argued for more clarity on the details of their policy, and argued that a misdiagnosis of the problems facing the railway will only compound them further.

Despite Labour’s rail policy, Sir Keir Starmer’s recent ‘5-missions’ speech, which signalled the need for a genuine partnership between the public and private sector, showed an evolution of the party’s positioning as a constructive partner to businesses – a distinct shift in tone from Starmer’s predecessor. It will be interesting to see how far this approach extends to the party’s rail policy, and whether it is willing to take a more pragmatic approach on the question of ownership. Rail Partners believes a reinvigorated public-private partnership, including both a new public body as well as private sector passenger train operations, can deliver better outcomes for Britain than the public sector alone.

The Lib Dems, who made gains in the ‘blue wall’, and could hold the balance of power in a future hung parliament scenario, identified the need for a public body in its 2019 general election manifesto. They envisaged a new ‘Railways Agency’ to oversee the operations of the railway network removing the Department for Transport from day-to-day decision-making.

There is acknowledgement across the three main Westminster parties that the railway needs clearer accountability to deliver greater benefits for customers, and more widely the economy and the environment. To achieve this – it is critical that government brings forward legislation to establish a public body as a legal entity.

Putting passenger rail aside, there is a growing consensus on the positives of all rail freight. All three parties have identified that rail freight offers many economic and environmental benefits to Britain, and recently, representatives of all three parties attended our freight reception in parliament, with Tory and Labour MPs giving keynote speeches. Now we need to see the parties push for an ambitious growth target to treble rail freight by 2050, and more broadly set a favourable policy environment which incentivises modal shift from road, to rail freight.  

As parties continue drawing up their manifestos and gearing up for the General Election, politicians of all persuasions have a choice to make when it comes to our railway: they can deliver reform and create a public-private partnership which enables operators to grow revenues and, in turn, free up public money – or risk a spiral of decline as the railway competes with other public services for stretched public resource. For the benefit of the customer who uses the railway, and the taxpayer who funds it, they need to be convinced to choose the former. 

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