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Straight down the line

Will renationalising railways put Labour on the right track?

As the general election approaches, Labour may have scored a significant early goal with the pledge that, if elected, they will fully nationalise the train network within five years of coming to power. Rail users have become sick of the constant cancellations, delays, uncertainties and strike actions, with many polls showing a majority in favour of renationalisation. Under Labour’s plans, a new body, Great British Railways (GBR) would take over contracts currently held by private companies as they expire. GBR would operate services and set timetables, eventually replacing Network Rail as responsible for maintaining and improving rail infrastructure. By cutting waste and clawing back shareholder dividends, Labour reckons that after five years £2.2bn would be saved every year. Passengers would be offered best-price ticket guarantees, automatic delay repay and digital season tickets. And a new watchdog, the Passenger Standards Authority, is proposed to scrutinise the system. The plans do not, however, include nationalisation of privately owned freight or rolling stock companies, as called for by trade unions, but which would cost billions. The Labour pledge has not been universally welcomed, with Transport Secretary Mark Harper claiming the plans were “unfunded”, and Andy Bagnall, chief executive of Rail Partners, which represents private operators, saying the change will lead to higher costs in the long term. But the proposal was backed by Mick Whelan, leader of Aslef, the train drivers’ union, and by Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association, which represents suppliers. So, if Labour wins the election, could this mark the beginning of a return to nationalisation for other struggling privatised industries? Water would probably be one of the first under consideration. With British waterways increasingly polluted by sewage, protests grow ever louder. And water companies’ massive pay-outs to shareholders at the same time as demanding higher payments from customers only increase public anger. Other formerly public-owned industries are struggling too, so is the tide about to turn?

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June / July 2024, Surveys

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