While Labour’s intention to repeal the minimum service levels legislation is clear, not much else is. We’ve heard little of substance

Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves, the duopoly at the top of Labour

I see that Germany has been hit by a wave of strikes by 90,000 transport workers affecting rail, bus and air services. Workers are demanding improved conditions, specifically reduced hours and longer holidays.

For those who regularly hear the refrain: “Why can’t our railways be as efficient as they are in Germany?”, the German word Schadenfreude comes to mind – deriving pleasure from someone else’s misfortune.

Actually, the performance of Deutsche Bahn (DB) has for some time no longer been as punctual as a Swiss watch. In 2023, 88% of trains arrived “on time”, which for them means within five minutes and 59 seconds of the scheduled time – not very different from our own performance.

In Switzerland itself, 93.5% of trains ran on time in 2022, with the Swiss blaming trains originating in Germany and Italy for the bulk of late running. For example, the Munich to Zurich service, due to arrive at 18.27, was on average 22.5 minutes late throughout the year. DB blamed the delays on the fact that the service has to use a single track line for some of the journey. Presumably that was also the case when it was running to time in previous years.

As it happens, I will be travelling on German trains next month so I will have a chance to see for myself. Mind you, last time I rocked up for a German train, I was instead faced with… a rail replacement bus.

So it seems that industrial unrest on the railways is not unique to us. Not that that is much comfort for those unable to catch their train. I myself lost out on a relatively lucrative speaking slot recently as the rolling ASLEF strikes meant there was no way of getting up to London from Lewes, short of getting out my 1971 Triumph Herald convertible (my only car) and doubtless being caught in mega traffic jams.

In my last column for Passenger Transport, I predicted that the government’s new minimum service levels legislation simply would not work, a message I had been privately giving to the DfT ever since the idea was mooted.

We now have proof that the legislation is dead on arrival. LNER put their toe in the water but quickly discovered that the water was far too hot and pulled it out. Specifically, ASLEF had signalled that using the legislation would result in a five-day strike exclusive to LNER, and doubtless on top of that other steps would follow to make normal operation impossible. It is difficult to think of a quicker capitulation. And if a government-run arm of the railways runs up the white flag, there is zero chance of anyone else using this flawed legislation.

Furthermore, the Scottish government, run by the SNP, has said it will not use the legislation, and Labour, which looks on course to win the general election later this year, has said it will repeal it.

It seems to be the case that Louise Haigh favours the full-throated new British Rail option

Behind the scenes, I detect that the government is pretty angry with the rail companies. I am told that the legislation was only brought forward by the Conservatives because the industry lobbied for it, and they have now been left standing when the music stopped. The government even produced guidance for the train companies on how to implement the legislation, guidance now gathering dust on a top shelves everywhere.

Following on from the botched ticket office closure consultations, where industry and government each pointed the finger at the other for the failure, it seems relations between the Tory government and the industry are at an all-time low.

Meanwhile, the companies are paying out big bonuses to their top employees. For example at FirstGroup, chief executive Graham Sutherland received a whopping £682,000, while the chief financial officer Ryan Mangold was handed an extra £650,000.

At the same time, the companies seem less concerned with the day-to-day bread and butter matters that should occupy them, such as train punctuality. Fare evasion in particular has become a major problem across the network, especially since Covid, and with the government now taking the fare box, the train operating companies seem largely uninterested in tackling this, unless they have a financial incentive specifically to do so.


I have even been told by some who are in a good position to know that the TOCs, anticipating the end of the line for them when Labour get in, are cleaning up as much as possible before then.

Yet while Labour’s intention to repeal the minimum service levels legislation is clear, not much else is. We have heard very little of substance. Perhaps they have fully worked out coherent plans and are keeping their powder dry. Perhaps they have not yet formulated fixed policies. Or perhaps they are arguing with each other over what to do. I suspect the latter two explanations.

Is it in fact Labour’s policy to eliminate the private sector entirely from running trains? The shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, told GB News the other day that there would be renationalisation without compensation, and that this would be achieved by the end of the next parliament.

This suggests two things. The first is that existing contracts will be honoured but not renewed, thereby avoiding the need for compensation. This has one obvious drawback. Any company faced with no future in the industry is not going to be terribly keen to help the new government. Rather, it would have nothing to lose by putting its own narrow interests first. That, as I indicated, may be starting to happen now.

The second is the implication that we are to see the recreation of a sort of British Rail, responsible not just for track and signals as is Network Rail, but day to day operation of the trains as well. Labour has supported the creation of something like Great British Railways but for them, is this the whole building or merely the foundations of something bigger?

Behind the scenes, I detect that the government is pretty angry with the rail companies

There is an alternative scenario open to Labour, that might be called the London Buses option. Here, the bus routes, timetables, fares and even the livery of the buses are decided by a public body, but contracts are then let on a tender basis to private companies like Go-Ahead and Stagecoach to run the services. Labour seem happy with that approach for the buses, not just in London, but in Manchester and elsewhere too, so why not apply it to the railways?

It seems to be the case that Louise Haigh favours the full-throated new British Rail option, but is that the view of Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves? It would not surprise me if the duopoly at the top of Labour modified their position, which they have noticeably been doing on a range of issues, not least their promised £28bn green investment plan.

There was a sharp cartoon in The Guardian the other day by the talented Ben Jennings. Under a “dig for victory” banner, it showed Keir Starmer having finished digging a grave. The headstone read “Labour Pledges”.
So we need clarification on whether Labour have in mind a new BR or a London Buses model. In the meantime, it would be prudent for the TOCs not to behave in such a way as to drive Labour towards the former.

Even for Louise Haigh, however, renationalisation has its limits. In response to my query, she said Labour did not want to touch the privately owned ROSCOs. I just observe neutrally that they are the part of the industry that has produced the bumper profits since privatisation so ought, for those with a Labour mindset, almost be first in the queue for renationalisation.

Moreover, while Labour is promising to “fix” the railways, I doubt very much that Rachel Reeves is going to find any money to freeze rail fares or introduce changes to the ticket structure in any way that the Treasury would conclude will lose income, and the Treasury generally is wary of the idea that reduced fares can drive patronage up to a degree that losses per ticket sale are covered.

Then there is the uncertainty over their position on HS2. The prime minister may have announced the cancellation of the leg north from Birmingham, in a move to throw some red meat to the fanatical Farage-types occupying the right wing of his party, but the DfT seems in no hurry to close and lock the door. Indeed, the rail minister Huw Merriman said this in a parliamentary debate last month:

“The choice will be quite clear for the Labour party … No land will be sold off until we are ready. It is perfectly feasible for the Labour party, if it supports HS2 going ahead, to say that it will put the safeguarding [of land] back on, which would be relatively straightforward. As none of the land will have been sold, it can just continue.”

I doubt if No 10 was best pleased by this contribution, though apart from making clear that HS2 need not be dead, issuing a challenge like this to Labour looks like good politics to me.

And while I understand that Labour will not want to commit to anything much without seeing the books, there is absolutely no reason why they cannot say they will, without committing themselves to reversing the cancellation of Phase 2, look at it all again if elected. Will they now do so?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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