Green perspectives on Stockwood and Bristol. Mostly.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The Railways Bill

[See update (added Jan 9) at end]

Come January 9th, the Railways Bill is scheduled for its Second Reading in Parliament. Bristol's MPs should be well-placed to support it – but will they?
The Bill, introduced by the Greens' Caroline Lucas with formal support from a number of Labour and Plaid Cymru MPs, has been hyped as renationalising the railways.
It doesn't do that though. This Bill is more modest and very much cheaper. It sets out to bring the passenger train operating franchises, the ones currently held by Virgin, Stagecoach, First, and a fistful of foreign owned companies, back into public control.
picture from
Instead of buying these companies out, it waits for the end of each contract, then awards the new operating contract to a publicly owned company – thus turning the trains back into a public service instead of the cash cow they've been for the private operators.
Test bed - East Coast Main Line
Of course, cash cows don't always cough up, and when franchisee National Express East Coast found that they couldn't fulfil their contract and show a profit, they walked away (very cheaply!) from their expensively negotiated franchise. To keep the trains running, a public company East Coast Main Line was created to fill the breach. They filled it very successfully from 2009 to date, increasing passenger numbers and revenue, and cutting the net subsidy to a mere 1% (the industry average is 32%, and a lot of that leaves the country!)
Even so, the current government has insisted on returning the route to the private sector.
Public Opinion
Very positive. A YouGov survey shows overall backing of three-to-one; even Tory voters were evenly divided. It's not unreasonable to think that Bristolians' opinions won't be much different.
Party policies.
MPs in this parliament aren't as enthusiastic as the general public, according to a recent Ipsos-MORI survey – as you'd expect given the make-up of the House. But in practice, few parties have a clear-cut policy - just Conservatives who are ideologically against, while Greens are strongly committed in favour. 
SNP have made positive noises, but where would that leave their funding from Brian Souter of Stagecoach? LibDem conference agreed that public bodies could enter the franchise bidding against the private sector – though, as Christian Wolmar points out, the franchise bidding system is hugely expensive and wasteful. Labour, while famously once espousing the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, now seems frightened of any formal endorsement of even having anyone but the private sector run the country's train services. That's in contrast with Labour's position in the Welsh Assembly, where they're looking at setting up a non-profit arms length company to run the Wales and Borders services, when the franchise enjoyed by Arriva (Deutsche Bahn) ends in 2018. That's a proposal backed by Plaid Cymru in the Wesh Assembly, but dismissed by the Welsh Tories as 'Marxist'!
As for UKIP, who knows?  Maybe, if he still reads this blog, Mike Frost could tell us?

On January 9th, the Railways Bill could be killed stone dead, or it could trigger a sea change in which passenger train services can run primarily for the benefit of the public. That depends on which MPs can find the time to be there to vote, and how they balance the pressures from their party whips, their constituents, and their consciences. We'll see.

[Added Jan 9:]   There was no time for the second reading today in the House of Commons, so it's been put back to February 27.   Meanwhile, not much enlightenment from local MPs about their voting intention.  Just Kerry McCarthy, who seems to be saying NO - she wants to keep the franchise bidding market going, but to allow a publicly owned company to join the bidders.   No word from Stephen Williams, while Dawn Primorolo still pretends her deputy speaker's role demands that she express no opinion on anything parliamentary!

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