Labour promises publicly owned rail – as Tories slam ‘unfunded nationalisation’

Labour will promise to deliver the biggest shake-up to rail “in a generation” by establishing the long-delayed Great British Railways (GBR) organisation and bringing routes back into public ownership.

Making the announcement in a speech on Thursday, shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh will also pledge to establish a “best-price ticket guarantee” for travellers, offer automatic “delay repay” schemes and make digital season tickets available across the network.

But the proposals have been attacked by the Conservatives, who claim Labour has no plan to pay for them.

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GBR was first proposed in 2021 after a review of the railways, with the aim of simplifying the franchise system and rebuilding passenger numbers after they fell dramatically during the pandemic.

The proposed public body promised to subsume Network Rail’s responsibility for track and stations, as well as taking charge of ticketing, timetables and network planning.

But despite getting backing from Boris Johnson and his ministers, its establishment has faced continuous delays and the organisation yet to see the light of day.

Boris Johnson faces the COVID inquiry next week
Boris Johnson backed the creation of Great British Railways in 2021. Pic: PA

Labour is now pledging to get GBR up and running if they win the next election, with some additional pledges of their own.

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The party said the body, which would be run by industry experts rather than government officials, would end the “fragmentation, waste [and] bureaucracy” of the current network.

And it would “stop profits leaking out to private operators” by taking charge of passenger lines when franchises run out – leading eventually to the whole passenger network being publicly owned.

Labour said this method would prevent taxpayers from having to cover any compensation to the operators that would be due if they renationalised the railways immediately.

EMBARGOED TO 2230 FRIDAY DECEMBER 22 File photo dated 16/04/21 of shadow transport minister Louise Haigh, who has said Labour will "boost the charge point rollout". Labour has pledged to support drivers through the cost-of-living crisis, as millions across the country hit the road to head home for the Christmas period. Issue date: Friday December 22, 2023.
Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh will outline Labour’s plans on Thursday. Pic: PA

The party also pledged to create a new independent watchdog called the Passenger Standards Authority to ensure GBR keeps up its standards.

And it committed to introducing a statutory duty on GBR to promote the use of rail freight – still owned by private firms – to cut carbon emissions and reduce lorry traffic.

Ms Haigh said: “With Labour’s bold reforms, a publicly owned railway will be single-mindedly focused on delivering for passengers and will be held to account on delivering reliable, safe, efficient, accessible, affordable and quality services.

“Labour’s detailed plans will get our railways back on track; driving up standards for passengers, bringing down costs for taxpayers, driving growth and getting Britain moving.”

The proposals have won the backing of Keith Williams – one of the experts behind the rail review – who recommended the creation of GBR three years ago.

He said its creation would “deliver a better railway for passengers and freight”, adding: “Running a better railway and driving revenue and reducing costs will deliver economic growth, jobs and housing by delivering better connectivity.”

But the Conservative rail minister Huw Merriman attacked Labour’s plans as “pointless, unfunded rail nationalisation that will do nothing to improve train reliability or affordability for passengers”, adding: “Without a plan to pay for this, it means one thing – taxes will rise on hard-working people.”

His criticism was backed up by Rail Partners chief executive Andy Bagnall – representing private operators – who said while train companies “agree that change is needed… nationalisation is a political rather than a practical solution which will increase costs over time”.

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