Labor has pledged to nationalize most rail services within five years
  • By Katie Austin, Transportation Correspondent and Kate Wannell
  • BBC News

If elected, Labor says it expects to re-nationalise most passenger rail services within five years.

The party says it will fulfill its pledge by bringing passenger services under public control when the contracts expire – but the private sector will still have a role.

Other railway promises include automatic refunds for train delays and improved internet connectivity.

Rail Minister Huw Merriman said the plans were “nonsensical” and “unfunded”.

“They have no plan to pay the fares linked to rail nationalisation,” he said. “Without a plan to pay for it, it's just one thing: taxes on hard-working people.”

The word “nationalisation” was not in Labour's programme, but that was the result.

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haig, who announced the plans, said there would still be a role for the private sector.

He said his party was not “ideologues” and it was right to use private companies.

Labor would allow privately funded “open access operators” such as Hull Trains and Lumo to continue.

Open access operators currently operate a relatively small number of services. They operate independently of government funding and often compete with franchise operators.

Labor also did not plan to nationalize the rail freight companies or the rolling stock companies.

Private rail companies, which have seen a boom in rail use in Britain since the British Railways era, have faced heavy criticism over fares and reliability.

All four major operators, including TransPennine Express, have been taken under public control and run under the government's operator of last resort model.

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The government has already pledged to set up a new public sector body, Great British Railways, responsible for rail infrastructure and awarding contracts to private companies.

The plans were initially announced in 2021 but have been delayed, and although a draft bill to implement the proposal has now been published, it is unlikely to become law before a general election expected this year.

During the pandemic, the government took control of the railways, with most train companies in the UK moving to contracts where they receive a fixed fee to run services, and taxpayers bear the financial risk.

Like the government, Labor is committed to establishing Great British Railways, but says it will be led by “rail experts rather than Whitehall”.

The party says the move to bring services back into public control will not cost taxpayers “a single penny in compensation costs”.

This commitment does not cover every current passenger train service. Contract for Abellio East Midlands Expires in October 2030.

Speaking to BBC News, Ms High said the current system was “not working” and was leading to delays and overcrowding.

He said the model was beset by “competing interests” and consolidating services under Great British Railways would improve the passenger experience.

Labor says “significant” savings could be made through public ownership, including reducing friction between operators and having less duplication of resources.

In its 2021 reform plan, the government estimates it could save £1.5bn a year five years from now by ending inefficiency and fragmentation, it says.

Automatic refunds for delayed and canceled journeys, better internet connectivity on trains and “Best Price Ticket Guarantee” will ensure passengers automatically pay less for tickets when making contactless payments.

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Ms Haig said the guarantee would not mean cheaper prices, but the system would be “more transparent and clearer”. The government has also said that it wants to simplify ticketing.

He said a new watchdog – the Passenger Standards Authority – would “ruthlessly” hold Great British Railways to account.

Asked how soon passengers would see improvements to services from taking rail companies into its GBR version, Ms Haig said: “We know there are no quick fixes and we're not going to see big change overnight. Take time to legislate and make structural changes.”

He added that Labor has no plans to close ticket offices.

image caption, Labour's shadow transport secretary Louise High said there would be no “quick fixes”.

Asked how Labor would try to resolve the pay dispute with train drivers' union Aslef, he said they would “sit down and work”, pointing out that the transport secretary had not met with the union since early last year.

He told the BBC that his party “always wants to modernize the railways and working practices”, but that this “must be done in partnership with the workers, not as an enemy”. He said Labor would not separate reforms from negotiations.

She did not say whether Labor would put a pay offer increase on the table.

Andy Bagnall, chief executive of Rail Partners, which represents rail companies, told BBC Radio 4's Today program that he agreed “radical change” was needed and nationalization was not the way to achieve it.

He said it would be the “best of both worlds” to have Great British Railways as a public sector body, while using private operators to “re-attract passengers and re-grow the railway”.

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This, he said, would “ensure that railways take as little subsidy as possible”.

“That's the risk of nationalization – without that commercial focus, we believe costs will increase over time, revenue growth will slow and taxpayers will lose out.”

Liberal Democrat transport spokeswoman Vera Hobhouse said the Conservatives had “left passengers paying a high price for poor services and endless disruption”.

“The Liberal Democrats want a plan to put passengers first by establishing a Great British Railways system after years of government disintegration.”

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said Labour's plan to bring train operating companies into a publicly owned network was “in the interests of rail workers, passengers and taxpayers”.

But he added that the project “should be the first step towards fully integrating all our railways into public ownership”.

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