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By Katy Austin & Kate Whannel
BBC News

Automatic refunds for train delays, a “best-price” guarantee and improved internet connections are among Labour’s pledges for Britain’s railways.

Contracts for private operators to run passenger services would be brought into public control and nationalised as they expire, the party said.

But shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said there would still be a role for the private sector.

Rail Minister Huw Merriman said the plans were “pointless” and “unfunded”.

“They don’t have a plan to pay for the bill attached to their rail nationalisation,” he said. “Without a plan to pay for this, it means one thing: taxes will rise on hard working people.”

The government has already promised to set up a new public sector body, named the Great British Railways which would be responsible for rail infrastructure and awarding contracts to private companies.

The plans were initially announced in 2021 but have been delayed and although a draft bill to implement the proposal has now been published, it is unlikely to become law before the general election expected this year.

During the pandemic, the government in effect took control of the railway, with most train companies in England moving onto contracts where they get a fixed fee to run services, and the taxpayer carries the financial risk.

Four major operators are also under public control after being taken into the government’s Operator of Last Resort.

Like the government, Labour is pledging to establish Great British Railways but says it would be led by “rail experts rather than Whitehall”.

The party says the move would not cost the taxpayer “a penny in compensation costs”.

Speaking to the BBC ahead of the announcement, Ms Haigh said the current system “was not working” and had led to delays and overcrowding.

She said the model was beset by “competing interests” and that bringing services together under Great British Railways would improve passengers’ experience.

She added that her party were not “ideologues” and that it was right to use private companies, where they add value.

Labour would still allow privately financed “Open Access operators”, such as Hull Trains and Lumo, to continue. Open Access operators currently run a relatively very small proportion of services.

It is also not planning to nationalise rail freight companies or rolling stock companies.

The party will pledge to deliver automatic refunds for delayed and cancelled journeys, better internet connection on trains and “a best-price ticket guarantee” ensuring passengers automatically pay the lowest possible amount for tickets when making contactless payments.

Ms Haigh said the guarantee would not necessarily mean cheaper prices but that the system would be “more transparent and clearer”. The government has also said it wants to simplify ticketing.

She said a new watchdog – the Passenger Standards Authority – would “mercilessly” hold Great British Railways to account.

Asked how soon passengers would see the improvements to services Labour claim would result from taking train companies into its version of GBR, Ms Haigh said: “We know there are no quick fixes and we’re not going to see enormous change overnight. It will take time to legislate and put the structural changes in place.”

She also said Labour had no plans to close ticket offices.

Labour’s shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said there would be no “quick fixes”

Asked how Labour would try to resolve the ongoing pay dispute with the train drivers’ union Aslef, she said they would “sit down and work out” an answer, pointing out the transport secretary had not met the union since early last year.

She told the BBC her party would “always want to modernise the railways and working practices”, but this needed to be “done in partnership with the workforce and not treating them as an enemy”. She said Labour would not be separating reforms from the negotiations.

She did not say whether Labour would increase the pay offer on the table.

Andy Bagnall, chief executive of Rail Partners, which represents private companies, said: “Train companies agree that change is needed for the railways, but nationalisation is a political rather than a practical solution”.

“Since the pandemic, train companies have been effectively renationalised and subject to a level of micromanagement by government not even seen under British Rail.”

He said that nationalisation would see the railways having to compete with other public services, like the NHS, for money.

Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson Wera Hobhouse said the Conservatives had “left commuters paying higher prices for poor services and endless disruption”.

“The Liberal Democrats want a plan which puts commuters first by establishing the Great British Railway body after years of the government dithering.”

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said Labour’s plan to bring train operating companies into a publicly-owned network was “in the best interests of railway workers, passengers and the taxpayer.”

But the plan “should be a first step to completely integrating all of our railway into public ownership,” he added.

19 October 2022
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