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Britain needs rail – and ambition for its future

LNER Azuma (British Rail Class 800) at Leeds Station. Photo Workers.

Journey times have to be shortened, new timetables and track are needed, but there’s no commitment from Labour or Conservatives to the planning and investment required…

Network Rail has admitted that passengers and freight companies will not see improvements on the East Coast Main Line any time soon. Yet over £4 billion has been invested by the government in upgrading the route and at least some of its trains.

Network Rail abandoned efforts to introduce a new East Coast timetable last December. Why? Because the route is unable to cope with competing demands from train operators.

Some operators have contractual rights to run trains that they are reluctant to give up. The situation is made worse as new private open-access passenger train operators demand more and more space in the schedules for their services.

Much-needed increases in passenger train frequencies and faster journey times can’t be delivered. Yet passenger numbers on the route are climbing rapidly; they have now passed the level reached just before the Covid pandemic.

Where’s the plan?

Nearly all stakeholders agree that there should be an end to the current mix of private and public train companies trying to operate in a fragmented rail industry, on routes running at near maximum capacity. But there is little sign of any cogent plan to improve the situation.

The Conservative government at least acknowledged that much better coordination is needed, which is why it proposed the creation of Great British Railways. This would be the essential “single guiding mind” charged with effective coordination of Britain’s railways. Typically, the government then did little to bring it about, although it made a manifesto commitment to early legislation to create GBR.

But the Conservatives were clear that their legislation would also force through the changes to the pay, terms and conditions of rail staff – changes which they have been trying to impose over the past couple of years, and which are at the root of the current long-running industrial disputes.

It is not surprising that many rail workers and users have looked to a future Labour government to change the fortunes of their industry. But the lack of ambition evident in Labour’s plan to fix Britain’s railways, published in April, has left people underwhelmed.

The headlines talked of Labour “re-nationalising” the railways. The reality is very different. Labour proposes a minimalist strategy: taking back into public ownership those train operating companies that are not already in the public sector when the contract for each one expires. That process may not be complete until 2030 – after the next general election.


And there is no commitment to deal with the massive profits made by rolling stock leasing companies. They suck large sums of public subsidy out of the system, as train union RMT has often pointed out. RMT’s view is straightforward – the public should buy and own our trains directly, rather than paying extortionate rents to leasing companies.

In a detailed analysis published last year RMT said: “With rolling stock leases now consuming nearly a quarter of the Train Operating Companies’ costs base and dividends worth over £200 million flowing out of the industry every year, this is a cost issue that will have to be tackled sooner or later.”

And Labour is also apparently happy to see private open access operators continuing to run services which can only be made profitable by diverting revenue from government-contracted operators.

Open access services don’t create extra capacity as some in Labour clearly think. They consume capacity that is better used as part of an integrated, planned service. RMT general secretary Mick Lynch justifiably calls open access operators “parasites”.

No commitment

There is no Labour commitment to bringing staff and their work back into public ownership from private infrastructure contractors – nor from private cleaning firms that pay paltry wages while imposing ever greater workloads on their workers.

Britain’s railways desperately need investment. Labour shies away from committing to this. Much more electrification is needed. This would reduce emissions, improve train performance and reliability, and reduce maintenance costs for both rolling stock and track. And modernisation of signalling would increase the capacity of the network to meet increased demand.

The real capacity game changer would be HS2. And there is no Labour commitment to build HS2 in full. Even if the complete project were reinstated tomorrow, it would not be ready before the routes it was designed to relieve are full to bursting. These three routes – East Coast, West Coast and Midland – are also critical to any expansion of freight train numbers.


If the newly elected government fails to build the section of HS2 north from Birmingham towards Manchester, capacity will be reduced for freight trains. HS2 passenger services will be forced to join the West Coast line at a point where serious bottlenecks already exist.

The HS2 project is expensive, certainly. But the damage to Britain’s economy will be immense if it is not built. The next government will have to deal with the issue – and soon.

Rail unions clearly believe that the creation of Great British Railways is likely to mean a return to national cross-industry collective bargaining, and potentially a convergence of pay, terms and conditions.

‘The new government needs to listen to rail workers and passengers. It’s up to workers to make that happen…’

The government has been firmly in charge of Network Rail and the passenger train operators for over two years, and disputes remain unresolved. Mostly these have been more about defending hard won conditions rather than pay.

But unions should be clear that a Labour government is unlikely to agree to inflation-matching pay increases. It may also pursue unpalatable changes to conditions before any increases are agreed.

National collective bargaining will not in itself change anything. Rail workers will need to think about how they can exert more control over their industry and defend and advance their interests and the interests of rail users.

Above all, Labour offers no commitment to protect Britain’s train manufacturing capacity – vital for the industry.

The Alstom train building factory at Derby has finally been awarded a contract worth £370 million to build ten new nine-car trains for London’s Elizabeth line to add to the existing 70-strong train fleet. These are badly needed as passenger numbers have massively exceeded projections since the line opened fully in late 2022.

Workers at the facility are relieved at the news. The factory had run out of work and there was an imminent threat of closure. Around 1,300 workers faced redundancy, along with up to 12,000 more in the supply chain.


But the long-term prospect isn’t good. Derby is Britain’s only train factory capable of designing, engineering, building and testing new trains. New trains are desperately needed – to replace existing old stock, and new stock for HS2, even in the present truncated version.

Unless further new train orders follow quickly, the threat to jobs and Britain’s train building capability will return.

The closure of Alstom’s 150-year-old Derby works would see a loss of expertise and experience that would be difficult to replace. Britain would be the only G7 nation unable to design and build trains.

Britain needs a planned and steady programme of train replacement which secures the future for Derby and for Britain’s other train building facilities. This should be part of a planned future for all aspects of Britain’s railways. The new government needs to listen to rail workers and passengers. It’s up to workers to make that happen.