Time for a complete rethink of the rail franchise system

Following much feedback from long-suffering St Albans commuters, I brought the issue of rail company performance and over high fares to the floor of the Liberal Democrat conference today by moving a motion on the reform of rail franchises.Rail Conference speech

I was calling for longer terms for rail franchises - subject to stringent periodic review - to encourage rail operators to invest for the long-term but with much tougher conditions on passenger experience and quality of service.  And following the disgraceful 8 percent increase in St Albans fares earlier this year, I was calling for rail fare rises to be kept to no more than inflation and where possible below. There were far more people wanting to speak - all relaying their individual experiences with rail services - than there was time available.  Three members of the LibDem parliamentary team were called - Norman Baker MP, shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Mark Hunter from Cheadle, and Lembit Opik.

The motion was given overwhelming support by conference delegates. I am sure that this is a story which will run and run.  I can promise to continue to stand up for local commuters. The full text of my speech follows: Rail privatisation - so many negatives about the way that our railways were first privatised.  The whole subsequent sorry history. But it is history.  This motion is about the future.  Last year the Fast Track Britain policy paper was approved by this Conference.  It presented an integrated transport strategy.  This motion builds on that work, prompted by the arbitrary and unfair way this year’s fare rises were applied – and by the opportunities offered by the current shambles of the East Coast franchise. It focuses on passengers – a word dropped from railwayspeak. We are all “customers” now.

No distinction between someone who buys a pizza on a station concourse and someone who has bought a ticket to ride. Being called a customer implies there’s a choice, yet for most rail passengers there is no choice. Five hundred years ago Tudor and Stuart absolute kings and queens gave monopolies to their friends – soap for you, salt for you. Now New Labour flogs off monopoly rail franchises.  There’s progress for you. Take St Albans – I intend to.  London is our main employer.  People have to get there on trains run by First Capital Connect.  Over six million journeys a year.  And that doesn’t include the journeys from Kings Langley on the truly terrible London Midland service. FCC bought the former Thameslink franchise by committing to pay the Treasury a “premium” of £808 million – a straight tax on the London commuter. Public transport turned into private monopoly up for sale to the highest bidder.

It contributes to a culture of mean little grabs –  just at St Albans station, free ATM machines replaced by ones demanding fees, car park machines over-charging in off-peak hours, four-car trains running instead of eight-car units, changes to off-peak ticket rules - and most extraordinary of all in 2008 walk-up passengers being over-charged for fares because of sloppy annual fare rise re-coding of the tills at the station. It’s a Ryanair approach to fare add-ons - except that’s being unfair to Ryanair. Of course the real impact is on fares.  This motion cautiously states that UK rail fares are among the highest in Europe.  UBS Bank published a report this summer confirming them as the highest in the world. Among the highest in Europe, the highest in the world?  You pays your money and you takes your choice - but rail travel in the UK is more about paying money and less about choice. Even regulated fares must rise by more than inflation.  Yes, this coming January will see a small drop – but its still less than overall deflation, in relative terms they are still remorselessly climbing.

In January of this year RPI 0.1 percent - ticket prices for regulated fares on most franchises up by an average of six percent, sixty times higher. St Albans commuters, already paying more than for any equivalent rail journey in the UK, saw our fares shoot up by eight percent. Arbitrary – yes.  Unfair – yes.  Transparent - no. And I haven’t even talked of the huge increases in unregulated fares. I was at a meeting earlier this year with the then rail regulator.  I asked why he did not intervene. He metaphorically flapped his hands, muttered about government policy, and said he could only act if increases were wholly excessive. What is the point of a regulator who won’t regulate? Lord Adonis has now insisted that this year’s regulated fare changes are applied uniformly – Secretary of State steps in – hooray! But it only freezes current disparities.  New Labour guarantees unfairness – well there’s a real surprise. The current rail franchise regime doesn’t even work for operators.  National Express is the second operator to fail on the East Coast franchise after over-bidding. 

When the going got tough, they just got going, they legged it.  Sell themselves to Stagecoach and they get to keep their other franchises.  It’s a disgrace. This motion calls for the East Coast franchise to be kept in the public sector for the rest of the current term.  Let it be a comparator for other types of franchise in terms of financial viability and passenger service quality.  When a publicly run South Eastern took over the operations of the truly awful Connex, the improvements in service standards were so marked that the Department of Transport did its best to bury them. We’ve had a decade of Labour worshipping at the altar of private enterprise, lets have a bit of “mixed economy” in the railway. But it’s too simple to just return to a mythical sunlit upland of a recreated British Rail. 

This Conference agreed only last year that further major restructuring of the railway was not the answer.  When there’s even less money in the kitty, how can we afford to divert money from real transport improvements to funding yet more reorganisation and disruption? Frankly we can’t. But we can mandate longer franchises with rolling reviews to encourage long-term investment decisions. We can stop using franchise awards as an excuse to gouge money from the travelling public. We can push for fare reductions wherever possible and a presumption that no fares rise by more than inflation. And as we prepare for Copenhagen, we can stop penalising those who use our greenest mode of transport.

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