Labour could re-nationalise the railways if it wins power at the next election, the party’s shadow transport secretary has said.
In the strongest indication yet that Labour could take some lines back into public ownership, Maria Eagle told The Huffington Post UK there was an “opportunity” post-2015 to run lines on a “not for private profit basis”. She also revealed proposals to rebrand the entire national inter-city network under one name and plans to include the cost of station car parking within a fare cap.
Eagle gave strong backing to the controversial HS2 rail line but warned there was no “blank cheque” for the project.
And ahead of the Labour Party conference in Brighton this weekend, she defended Ed Miliband following a summer of criticism from Labour figures, arguing the party was in “a good position” to win the next election.
In the interview with HuffPost UK, Eagle pointed to the East Coast line, which was nationalised in 2009, as a model of how a state-run railway line could function.
“The way the East Coast services have been run over the last four years can point the way to a different future for our railways,” Eagle said.
“What they have demonstrated very clearly is that is perfectly possible to run a national rail service on a not for private profit basis and deliver a service just as good, very arguably better, than a profit driven train company,” she said. “I think it does point a way to doing things differently.”
The East Coast line was taken over by the last Labour government in 2009 after National Express could no longer afford to run it. A new state-run company, Directly Operated Railways, was set up to manage the line. By the end of the year it is expected to have returned £800 million to the Treasury since it was nationalised and ploughed £40 million of profit into improving the line.
A recent poll showed that 58% of the public were opposed to the line being privatised. Other surveys have suggested the public is overwhelmingly in favour of re-nationalising the entire network.
But the coalition has announced it will hand it back to a private company by February 2015, arguing to do so would deliver “tangible improvements” to the line.
Eagle said this was a “completely ideological” move designed to prevent voters from being able to compare a nationalised line to those run by private firms.
She said: “The reality is they don’t have any argument for privatising. It’s about politics it’s not about passengers. They don’t want to see a successful not for profit innovator that can show up the other operators, so they want to get rid of it ahead of the next election.”
The franchises for the Northern, Great Western, Greater Anglia, West Coast, London Midland, East Midlands, South Eastern, South West and Cross Country lines are all due to expire between 2015 and 2020.
Asked whether this presented an opportunity for Labour to look at running the lines in the way the nationalised East Coast line currently is, Eagle said: “There is an opportunity, because of the franchising fiasco, it’s now quite clear every inter-city franchise is going to come up during the next parliament. That does present a real opportunity for the next government to take a less ideological approach to what happens when those contracts come to an end and do what works.”
Eagle’s comments are a strong indication a future Miliband led Labour government would not put them out to tender to private companies – but instead run them along similar lines to how the East Coast line is currently operated.
‘REBRAND’ INTER-CITY TRAINS
The shadow transport secretary also revealed plans to “rebrand” the country’s network of inter-city trains under one name and allow passengers to more easily move between different operators on their journey.
“Tickets are not in any way compatible,” Eagle said of the current system. “Each different company has different peak time and that’s not printed on the ticket, you can get caught out. It makes sense to restore a united and unified inter-city brand to our strategic national service.
“When you have a new generation of inter-city trains being built in the North East coming into service, it seems to me to be a good opportunity to stop repainting and repainting trains every time the operator changes.”
Eagle pointed to London as an example, where passengers are able to easily switch between the publicly run Tube and private operated buses without even realising. “In London you don’t really care or don’t really know who is running the services, a bus or a train. All you know is you have an Oyster card that gets you onto the network.”
Other proposals include a legal right to the cheapest fare, preventing train companies from selling tickets for a higher price at stations than they do online, and tougher rules on what counts as peak time.
Eagle also said Labour could look at devolving decisions about transport to the regions rather than being “micro-managed” from Whitehall. She said that with “proper governance” there was no reason why Transport for London (TfL) should not take over more of the old Network South East area that covered much of the south of England.
And she proposed that the cost of parking at stations should be included in any fare cap. “I think one thing that really annoys people is car parking charges at stations,” she said. “We should bring those within regulated fare cap. So that means people can’t be ripped off.”
MARIA VS MANDELSON
Speaking to HuffPost UK Eagle also mounted a strong defence of the planned high speed rail line known as HS2 that will run from London to Birmingham and on to Manchester.
The £50bn project has come under intense criticism recently including from Labour heavyweights such as Lord Mandelson and former chancellor Alistair Darling as well as the influential Commons public accounts committee (PAC). The committee, which examines government spending, has said the government’s projections were based on “fragile numbers, out of date data and assumptions that do not reflect real life”.
HS2 is especially controversial with Tory MPs with constituencies on the route
Darling recently denounced the multi-billion pound project as “foolish” while Mandelson said it could prove to be an “expensive mistake”.
But Eagle dismissed the attacks, and said “we really do need it” in order to ensure there is enough capacity on a rail network that is seeing a growth in passenger numbers. “If we don’t have a new line running North-South then pretty soon we aren’t going to have any space on the line for different types of services,” she said.
“By the early 2020s the west coast mainline will be full. Opponents say you can just increase capacity by doing little fixes on the line, there is some truth to that, but by nowhere near enough to deal with the increase in projected usage.
She said there was “no way other than building a new line” that took the fast services off the existing network that could deal with the problem.
“My conclusion is if we don’t do it then over the next 20-30 years, transport secretaries are going to be setting about trying to manage a decline.
Rejecting the criticisms of Tory backbenchers and Labour various grandees opposed to the project, she said: “None of those people who either object to specific routes or object to spending all of this money on building extra capacity into our railway system the can explain how they are going to deal with this capacity crunch.”
However Eagle left open the possibility that Miliband may decide to withdraw support for the line first conceived under the previous Labour government.
“Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and I agree it needs to go ahead, but obviously without a blank cheque,” she said. Asked whether there was a point where the project could become to expensive to retain the Opposition’s support, Eagle said: “Of course, of course there is a point where that would be true.”
IN DEFENCE OF ED
The shadow cabinet, of which Eagle is a part, was heavily criticised in some quarters for not giving Miliband enough support over the summer. “I don’t think it was fair,” Eagle insisted. “A lot of us were out there. I was out there on rail fares and on HS2 rail.”
Eagle also name-checked shadow environment secretary Caroline Flint, shadow financial secretary Chris Leslie, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne, shadow housing minister Jack Dromy, shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg and her sister Angela, the shadow Commons leader, for having pushed issues over the past few months.
However while Labour may have a narrow lead in the national polls, Miliband himself has dire personal ratings with the public.
Ed Miliband faced criticism from Labour figures over the course of the summer
“Ed Miliband is facing a much sharpened up Tory attack and you can see in the way they work they aim at individuals,” Eagle explained, “The reality is the shadow cabinet were out there talking about their issues.”
Eagle added: “I think some of the criticism of Ed is completely unwarranted. Ed’s trying to do something no leader of the Opposition has done, the last time we lost office it took us 18-years to win it back, the time before that, and I’m old enough to remember, it took us 13-years.
“Ed’s been very clear. We are trying to be a one-term Opposition. Five years. Not 18 or 13. But five. I think he has done a really good job of making sure we lay the foundations for that.”
And Eagle said that while “uniting is the party is often a problem” after election defeats there had been no “crazy fallings outs” following the “serious” defeat in 2010. “You might have expected to see the party falling apart fighting, it hasn’t happened, it hasn’t happened because of Ed’s leadership.”
“We are ahead in the polls we have consistently been ahead in the polls, at present we are in a good position to make sure we can win that next election.”
The party has also been criticised for having not yet setting out many concrete policies and sticking to its so-called “blank piece of paper”. But Eagle said while Labour would begin to unveil policies soon it would not rush them out.
“We’ve got a fixed term parliament now, we’ve never had that before. So the timing of when you come out with great detail is going to be a bit more fixed and it might not be quite yet,” she said. “Of course we need to set out in a bit more detail where we are going and we will start doing that at this conference.”