People’s Rail: Rail Cymru

“Rail Cymru marks a once in a generation opportunity to change for the better our rail service in Wales.”

Joe Fortune, SERA’s transport coordinator and the Co-operative Party’s Parliamentary Officer presents the joint pamphlet ‘Rail Cymru: A People’s Railway for Wales‘, in this article from the latest edition of New Ground, the transport special.

We in SERA understand the importance of good public transport policy. We understand the importance of this area not only for our environment but also social inclusion, economic development and community cohesion. SERA must continue to influence the wider Labour movement’s thinking to ensure the policy platform is rooted in the promotion of environmental policies and values. Therefore it was particularly gratifying that SERA were able to contribute so much towards a recent publication titled ‘Rail Cymru’.

Rail policy is currently under great scrutiny, especially after the West Coast fiasco. It is a debate punctuated by a paucity of ideas and ever rising fares. However salvation may be found in the above report, which was authored by Paul Salveson. The report was launched in the Welsh Assembly by Vaughan Gething AM, the Chair of the Cross Party Group on Rail. When launching the report, Vaughan Gething AM stated:

“Rail Cymru marks a once in a generation opportunity to change for the better our rail service in Wales. No one can pretend that the current franchise model serves the passenger well in terms of cost or quality. If we don’t demand a better service then we will get more of the same. The Rail Cymru report sets out how we could finally move towards a rail service that we all want and deserve.”

This report was also given the stamp of approval from the Co-operative Party, ASLEF, Co-operatives UK and Co-operative and Mutuals Wales. The Shadow Secretary of State Maria Eagle MP also endorsed the report, saying that an ‘important part of the report gives further weight to the new idea for mutual not-for-profit train operating companies’. The proposal has found support in Wales as the Labour Government seeks to develop a new model for rail services that serves only the people of Wales – not shareholders and private companies.

It is fair to say that numbers of passengers carried by the railways in the UK have continued to increase and punctuality and reliability have improved. As this industry seemingly will never be free of public subsidy, many believe there is real democratic deficit in the industry. To go a step further, it may be the case that the current system has not given the public the confidence that the railways are being run in their interest.

The solution Paul Salveson suggests brings together employees, passengers and communities. This mixed model would have true democratic accountability at its core. It would see elections of passengers on regional and national boards, where they would join employees and community groups in the direction of the organisation, managed by rail professionals. The report focuses on measures that would tie the company closely to the people of Wales, giving them a service they can call their own.

Central to the vision for ‘Rail Cymru’ is building an integrated network of rail and connecting bus services, with improved access for walkers and cyclists to stations. The report shows how having a more mutual approach would allow the company’s focus to shift from profit to allowing assets such as stations to be transformed into hubs of community and business activity.

The co-operative movement believes that people should have a greater say over the services they use. This proposal is backed by a recent survey by Co-operatives UK, which indicated that over 85% of respondents in Wales supported having more say in the way in which the rail services are delivered.

Of course the report looks towards the Welsh Rail franchise. However, there is no reason why the principles cannot be adapted to the other rail franchises currently operated in this country. This is a new model of public ownership, owned by the people for the people. Some argue that cooperatives and mutuals are ok on a small scale but that the governance model could not possibly run something as large and complex as trains – but one does not need to look further than the Co-operative Group (which would be a FTSE 20 company), Mondagon (15Bn Euro turnover business) or indeed even Barcelona FC! For those who doubt that mutuals and not-for-profit companies can run utilities, look no further than Wales’ water company Glas Cymru. It happens now and it works.

It is clear that this UK Government and its current Ministerial team is not in a place to come up with a long-term strategy for rebalancing the privatised rail franchise structure, accountability and value for money. This is not a biased view – the NAO recently stated:

“[there is] no comprehensive strategy for prioritising resources based on a full understanding of costs and value.”

As this Government fails, it must be the Labour Movement, Co-operative Movement and Labour Party who fill the void and offer the country a new approach and set of values with regard to passenger rail.

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