Reforming the railways – have the floodgates opened?

It is with a hint of a smile and a touch of surprise that the Telegraph website has a readers poll showing 58% support for rail denationalisation.  On the Guardian that is 93%.

The absolute omnishambles of the West Coast Main Line franchise competition has blown away respect for and confidence in rail privatisation.  Most commentators, campaigners and most importantly passengers are now convening in the position marked ‘time for change on the railways’.  I for one am not sorry to hear that.

On Monday night I presented at the Pragmatic Radicalism Top of the Policies fringe at Labour Party Conference.  My policy was 3-fold, slim down the DfT, devolve powers and funding to regional transport authorities, create a not for profit intercity railway company to operate all intercity services across the country.

This policy came 2nd and the national intercity not for profit company got the big cheer.

It is time for change on the railways.  Taxpayers pay far more now than previously. Railways are a massive success but don’t let the train operating companies fool you – they have had a hell of a lot of support from the taxpayer.

Let me give you an example, Virgin Trains get credit for the Pendolino trains that run up and down the West Coast, but these are actually leased by Virgin from rolling stock companies.  The reason the Government gets the blame for the lack of decent rolling stock is because it is the government that orders and pays for them, you and me the taxpayer, not the private train operators.

The railways are a vital public good that benefit the health and wealth of the country.  The railways are also a success story and the limited capacity there now is sees our fares go up to manage demand and to sift the burden of investment onto farepayers rather than taxpayers as a whole.

I fail to see why we should support the shift of burden from taxpayers to farepayers for railway investment when the country as a whole benefits from a great railway network.  The railways are a public service providing a crucial public good.  It is time to look again at how the railways are run.

Me personally?  I want to see:

– a national intercity company pumping all profits into continually improving the services between our great cities and towns.

– regional franchises locally agreed and then let as concessions in the same manner as the successful London Overground service.

– rural/branch lines being micro-franchised where appropriate with a strong element of mutual ownership and management; we need to take the community rail partnership much further on and get these lines working as a part of their communities (not just serving them but intrinsically becoming part of the fabric)

One thing is certain and that is that the fare payers and the taxpayers will no longer take rail franchising for granted as the preferred system.

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