"In the UK we pay one of the highest public subsidies, some of the highest fares and yet receive one of the worst services in Europe." Photograph: Getty Images.
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Rail privatisation has failed on every count - but there is an alternative

The success of the state-run East Coast Main Line proves it's time to bring the other rail franchises under public control.

Today marks 20 years since the privatisation of the railways when the Major government passed the Railways Act. You would struggle to find anybody that believes the promises made have been met. The free-market experiment with our railways has delivered a poor service, with high fares and no sign of these increases being curbed or significant improvements to the service we receive.

When National Express withdrew from running the East Coast Main Line there were concerns that the state-owned Directly Operated Railways (DOR) would not be able to deliver a good service. But not only has DOR succeeded in doing so, it has also just returned a £200m surplus to the Treasury, rather than to shareholders. It’s time we brought the other rail franchises under public control as they come up for renewal. And while train operators might legitimately argue that DfT control of rolling stock procurement, accessibility investment and Network Rail’s control of the track infrastructure, pose constraints on their service delivery, it is difficult to see how other parts of the rail industry could be responsible for the appalling failings of rail operators. These include key customer issues such as reliability, lack of real-time customer service information and dirty trains.

It’s not just DOR which has successfully run a railway. Transport for London (TfL) took control of franchising London overground services in 2007 and is now operating with some of the highest public satisfaction and punctuality levels of any railway in the country. Whilst the Mayor needs to control his inflation-busting fare rises, TfL’s running of the Overground has been a success, scoring highly with passengers content with the service delivered. In addition, this has allowed the Overground to be worked into the wider TfL network and fully integrated, making it an even more useful part of our transport network. The key factor of local management and accountability has added real value in terms of service quality; and efficiency has been improved because of TfL’s determination to focus on the value for money the public receives as opposed to maximising shareholder dividends

Privatising the railways, with the complex and fragmented ownership and management structure that has resulted, was clearly a mistake, with even David Willetts admitting as much. The decision by John Major to follow the prescriptions of the Adam Smith Institute laid the foundations for the mess we see today. At the time we were promised a system that would improve services, with Major telling parliament in February 1993: "franchises will provide a better, cheaper and more effective service for the commuter."

The simple fact is that in the UK we pay one of the highest public subsidies, some of the highest fares and yet receive one of the worst services in Europe. Since privatisation, fares have increased above inflation for a large number of routes and the ticketing system is ludicrously complicated. TfL has demonstrated that it is possible for a public provider to deliver high standards of service and a straight forward integrated ticketing system.

It’s been said before, but we must keep the pressure up. DOR must be allowed to bid for the franchises as they come up for renewal. Those who want to continue with a dogmatic free-market approach must follow their own logic. If they believe private companies are superior to the public sector, why should they worry about competing with DOR? The very fact the government are allowing foreign state-backed railways to bid for our franchises but not our own state-backed company is ludicrous. This isn’t about a 'lurch to the left', or returning to the 1970s, this is about getting the best service at a price that is affordable for passengers.

Closer to home in London, the first step should be to give control of the commuter routes serving the capital to TfL. This is something even the ardently pro-market Boris Johnson supports. Unfortunately, he hasn’t yet been able to convince his colleagues in government to hand him the reins, but this is something that government should do. They probably worry about commuters in Kent reacting against London’s Mayor having control of some of their commuter services, but the reality is that passengers in the wider south east would see improvements in their journeys to work in London.

We can carry on down the path of current railway privatisation and accept ever higher fares, high public subsidy and poor service, but we have a choice. I don’t know about you, but 20 years from now I’d rather be discussing something else rather than why 40 years of railway privatisation has failed. Politics is about the art of the possible; it is entirely possible to allow DOR to bid for rail franchises and it is entirely possible to allow TfL to run regional services that come into London. It is about time we made it happen, otherwise we’ll see more wasted years with passengers picking up the bill for failure.

Val Shawcross is transport spokeswoman for the London Assembly Labour Group 

Val Shawcross is transport spokeswoman for the London Assembly Labour Group 

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Five of Scotland’s most exciting general election battles

Will unionists hook the big Salmond in Gordon? And can the Tories overrun the Scottish Borders? Everything's up for grabs. 

In 2015, the Scottish National Party won Scotland in a landslide. With the next election expected in 2020, politics for the next five years looked homogenous, managerial and predictable. 

But then came Brexit, talk of a second independence referendum, and an early election. Now everything's at play. Depending on your perspective, this is a proxy indyref2, or a chance to condemn the Brexit government, or the opporunity to turn Scotland blue. One thing is sure - local contests will not just be about collecting the bins on time, but about the great constitutional questions of the day. With a giant splash of egotism. 

Here is my pick of the constituency battles to watch:

1. Who’s the biggest unionist of them all?

Constituency: East Renfrewshire
Battle to watch: Blair McDougall (Labour) vs Paul Masterton (Tory)

If anything symbolised the #Indyreffightback, it was the toppling of Jim Murphy, the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire in 2015. Murphy had slogged away for the No campaign during the 2014 referendum, braving egg throwers and cybernat centurions to make the case for the UK in 100 towns across Scotland. Being ousted by the Scottish National Party’s Kirsten Oswald was the biggest metaphorical egg of them all. 

Still, Murphy only lost by 3,718 votes. The self-styled defenders of the union, the Scottish Tories, have spied an opportunity, and made East Renfrewshire a target seat. Paul Masterton, a local activist, hopes to follow in the footsteps of Jackson Carlaw, who snapped up the same area for the Tories in the Scottish parliamentary elections last year. 

But who’s that appearing on the horizon? Blair McDougall, the former Better Together chief, is waving Labour’s banner. And no one can accuse him of flip flopping on the independence question. 

Since quashing a second independence referendum is the priority for pro-union voters of East Renfrewshire choose, they are likely to vote tactically. So which candidate can persuade them  he’s the winner?

2. The best shade of yellow

Constituency: East Dunbartonshire
Battle: Jo Swinson (Lib Dem) vs John Nicolson (Labour)

When Jo Swinson first won her home constituency in 2005, she was just 25, and by her early thirties, she was pacing the inner sanctums of the Coalition government. But in 2015, East Dunbartonshire voters decided to give her an early retirement and opted for the former broadcaster, the SNP’s John Nicolson, instead by 2,167 votes. 

In England, the Lib Dem surge has been fuelled by an emotional Europeanism. Swinson, though, can sing “Ode to Joy” as many times as she wants – it won’t change the fact that Nicolson is also against Brexit.
So instead, the contest is likely to come down to two factors. One is the characters involved. Nicolson has used his media clout to raise his profile – but has also been accused of “bullying” STV into dropping its political editor Stephen Daisley (Nicolson denies the claims)

The other is the independence referendum. East Dunbartonshire voted 61.2 per cent to stay in the UK in 2014. If voters feel the same way, and vote tactically this time, Nicolson may wish to resurrect his TV career. 

3. Revenge of the Tories

Constituency: Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk
Battle: John Lamont (Tory) vs Calum Kerr (SNP)

And the winner is… anyone who can reel off this constituency name without twisting their tongue. Let’s call it BRK, or Project Blue. 

BRK, a rural constituency in the Scottish borders, was once a comfortable home for the Liberal Democrat Michael Moore. He was driven out in 2015 by the SNP’s Calum Kerr. Indeed, such was the political turmoil that Moore slumped to third place. Kerr’s biggest rival was the conservative John Lamont. 

Two years later, the electoral horns are sounding, and Lamont is so confident of his victory that he is standing down as an MSP. There were just 328 votes between him and Kerr last time round. So who will be the new ruler of BRK?

4. Labour’s last stand

Constituency: Edinburgh South
Battle: Ian Murray (Labour) vs everyone else

When Ian Murray first won Edinburgh South for Labour in 2010, he might have been in his early thirties, but he was surrounded by Labour heavyweights like Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy. Five years later, after a catastrophic election night, he was the only Labour MP left in Scotland. 

Murray’s survival is down partly to his seat – a leafy, academic constituency that epitomises Edinburgh’s pro-union, pro-Remain vote – and his no-nonsense opinion on both these issues (he’s no fan of Jeremy Corbyn either). A similarly-minded Labour candidate, Daniel Johnson, won the overlapping Scottish parliamentary constituency in 2016.

Now, though, Murray is fighting a defensive battle on two fronts. The SNP came second in 2015, and will likely field a candidate again. But those with longer memories know that Edinburgh South was once a Tory realm. Stephanie Smith, who is also standing for local elections, will be trying to take a bite out of Murray’s pro-union vote. 

Still, Murray has a good chance of outlasting the siege. As one Labour activist put it: “I think I’ll be spending the next six weeks camping out in Edinburgh South.” 

5. The big fish in the pond

Constituency: Gordon
Battle: Alex Salmond (SNP) vs Colin Clark (Tory)

Freed from the chains of high office, Alex Salmond is increasingly in touch with his inner charismatic bully. When not trying to wind up Anna Soubry, he is talking up a second independence referendum at inconvenient moments and baiting the Brexiteers. This is the big fish the pro-union movement would love to catch. 

But can they do it? Salmond won the seat in 2015 from the Liberal Democrats with a majority of 8,687 votes. Taking on this whopper is Colin Clark, a humble Tory councillor, and he knows what he’s up against.  He called for every unionist to back him, adding: “I have been in training since 2015 and I am fit and ready to win this seat in June.”

To get a sense of how much the Scottish referendum has changed politics, consider the fact that Labour activists are ludicrously excited by this prospect. But however slippery he may be, the SNP goliath in person can win over even devout unionists.  I’m not betting on a hooked Salmond any time soon. 

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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