One of the areas where Labour should be setting out its vision, which everyone is crying out for, and where Labour would attract huge popularity, is by reasserting the role of an activist State in areas where the market has run amok, is out of control, or has massively failed. The railways would be a good place to start (though the list is a long one) and the McNulty report, out last month, is a perfect example of everything that is wrong with Tory policy on transport.
Britain’s railways are the most expensive compared with the rest of Europe where they are still publicly owned. Why? Because, as the wealthy businessman Lord McNulty admits, privatisation has brought fragmentation when an efficient rail system requires a single linked entity. So what does the report recommend, and what are the Tories about to implement? Even more fragmentation. The maintenance of the track and signalling is now to be fragmented and put into the market, and indeed fragmented further into small companies like mini-Railtracks.
The other feature that stands out in the McNulty report, and is enthusiastically embraced by the Tory government (hardly surprisingly since they appointed him precisely to produce the report he has), is its rigid ideology. Francis (gerry can) Maude has recently acknowledged speech to the Policy Exchange think-tank that the Tory aim is to eradicate State provision of public services in this country, even if as he also admitted that means their being run by private equities from tax havens. Not surprisingly therefore McNulty pushes market fundamentalism to the limits for the railway system – driver-only operated trains, the removal of safety-trained guards from all trains, higher fares, massive cuts in station staffing, wholesale closure of ticket offices, dangerous fragmentation of Network Rail and a serious watering down of maintenance standards.
The ideology of the market as the measure of all things is even being taken to the point where safety is being left to market forces. After the accidents of Hatfield, Ladbroke Grove and Potters Bar left 40 passengers dead and the private Railtrack company was replaced by Network Rail operating on a not-for-profit basis, the ‘commercial freedom’ drive now being unleashed aims to cut out ‘interference’ from regulators and let the franchised and fragmented rail-operating companies to decide the fate of passengers.
All of this is of course justified in the sacred name of cutting costs and boosting profits – quite a nerve when the private sector has already sucked £11bn out of the railways since privatisation in 1996. There is a better way: take the franchises back in-house when they expire (at no cost whatever to the taxpayer) or when the privateers walk away, and return them under a single organisational roof like Network Rail. Why doesn’t Labour say this? It would be hugely popular.