Mark Harper, prime minister Rishi Sunak’s new Secretary of State for Transport, recently gave a keynote speech to rail industry leaders. He failed dismally to give any real indication to those working in rail or rail passengers that he will in any way adequately address the industry’s current problems.
Harper did confirm the creation of “Great British Railways” which will incorporate Network Rail. It will be an overall “guiding mind”, overcoming at least some of the fragmentation created by rail privatisation.
The impact of the fare structure reform promised by Harper is open to question. There’s no certainty how that would result in either cheaper fares or a simpler fares structure.
Harper stated that “Britain is yearning for a modern railway that meets the needs of the moment. One reliable enough to be the 7-day-a-week engine for growth businesses expect. Nimble enough for post pandemic travel, whilst allowing more flexibility for freight…the railways need fundamental reform…”
‘His ideas for reform recycle failed policies…’
But his ideas for achieving all this were a mixture of platitudes and woeful recycling of failed policies. “Enhance the role of the private sector” he said, forgetting that the private sector was instrumental in creating the current crisis. The crisis was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, not created by it.
Harper called for more open access passenger train operators. He ignores the fact that the tiny number of services currently provided by open access operators are only commercially viable because they are subsidised: they can abstract ticket revenue from taxpayer-supported train operators.
He talked of “reform” and “modernising working practices”; this means cutting pay and attacking the working conditions of rail staff.
Despite criticising the level of subsidy to the railways, Harper’s plan to restructure rail does not tackle that. But it will ensure the protection and enhancement of profits for private companies and dividends to shareholders.
RMT condemned the speech, saying: “It is no good for the Transport Secretary to extol the virtues of rail privatisation when the travelling public through its own experience recognises it’s been an unmitigated disaster.
“This speech is a blatant attempt to divert attention from the crisis engulfing our railways and the enduring shambolic mess.
“Many rail services that are already in meltdown will suffer even more because of plans to cut thousands of rail jobs and jeopardise safety standards…”