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TUC Congress 2020 We need to run our own railway

Grant Shapps has admitted that 26 years of rail privatisation hasn’t delivered for passengers, staff or taxpayers. MICK WHELAN, general secretary of Aslef, the train drivers' union, argues that it’s time to bring our railway back into public ownership

WE ARE waiting, with some trepidation, for the publication of the much-delayed Williams rail review and an indication from the Department for Transport of what it has in mind for the future of our railway.

There have been signals — Grant Shapps has been busy briefing his friends in the right-wing papers — of what he might have in mind. 

Adrian Quine was prompted to write a piece in the Daily Telegraph asking, plaintively: “Are our trains to be nationalised in all but name?” 

Now he came not to praise Caesar, but to bury him, as he thought — as you might imagine — that this would be a jolly bad idea.

Funnily enough, we don’t. We think it would be a rather good idea. 

Aslef campaigned, successfully, for the nationalisation of Britain’s railways during the great post-war Attlee governments. 

And we campaigned, sadly, unsuccessfully, against privatisation, under John Major, in the early 1990s.

We think, as most people in the Labour Party, and the labour movement, think, that Britain’s railways should be run as a public service, not for private profit. 

That goes for the Royal Mail, the Post Office, and our public utilities — gas, water and electricity — too.

Shapps, the Secretary of State for Transport, told MPs in June that the coronavirus crisis has created an opportunity to run “a different type of railway.” 

While he will not be proposing a return to full public ownership it is, nonetheless, a remarkable volte-face by a Tory government.

An admission that the privatisation of Britain’s rail network in 1994 — which even Margaret Thatcher, that arch advocate of privatisation, famously described as “a privatisation too far” — simply hasn’t worked.

Shapps is proposing to end the “failed franchise system” and replace it with management contracts. 

Instead of bidding for a franchise, and taking the fare box, operators will receive a fixed fee for running a service while the Treasury will collect the cash and the government will own the routes.

The system will be overseen by a new board of control, which is likely to be chaired by the transport secretary, giving the DfT greater control of timetables and fares. 

It will also give the network the “guiding mind” which Williams will call for in his rail review and which includes strong criticism of the “fragmented nature of our privatised railways.”

That review was ready to be published before last Christmas — when Williams briefed Aslef in November he told us that the structure he would propose would work whether the railway was in public ownership, under Labour, or in private, under the Tories — but the general election, followed by a three-way dog fight between Williams, the DfT and Downing Street, as well as the Covid-19 crisis, put his report on the back-burner. 

His proposals will provide Shapps with cover if he comes under attack from the train operating companies, the Rail Delivery Group or some of the ideologically driven, uber-free market, “swivel-eyed loons” on the government’s back benches.

The Transport Secretary told the transport committee he wants to “bring the railway back together” — ironically, nicking a phrase from us, as we have often called on the government to “put the wheels and the steel back together” — and compared it to the Transport for London model where an operator is awarded a contract to run London Overground.

I suppose we should be happy that a Tory government has finally admitted what those of us who work in the rail industry have always known — that privatisation doesn’t work.

But what this Tory government will, we think, suggest is just another commercial model. 

It might put the wheels and the steel back together but they should be in the public, not the private, sector — because the railway is a natural monopoly. 

It should be run as a public service, not for private profit, for passengers, for businesses, for taxpayers, and for all of us who work in the industry. 

Rail is the transport of the future. It’s clean — and, when all our lines are electrified, carbon-neutral — and a much better way, in the 21st century, to move freight as well as people around this country. 

But to achieve everything we want to achieve as a green economy we need to own — and run — our own railway.

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