For the company behind our railways to be truly accountable, all citizens must be given the right to become individual members, says Michael Stephenson

Evidence compiled in a report written by Network Rail’s members reveal an organisation that is imbued with the Basil Fawlty approach to customer relations – a belief that this rail system would “run much better if it wasn’t for the passengers”. Network Rail’s determination to suppress this evidence vindicates the Co-operative party’s “People’s Rail” campaign for passengers and the public to get real control over their rail network.

Last year, the Co-operative party published new research identifying systemic weaknesses in Network Rail that have repeatedly and unnecessarily caused chaos to the travelling public – and showed how the governance structure of Network Rail is failing both passengers and the wider rail industry.

The overwhelming body of evidence, compiled by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the report that Network Rail seem so keen to suppress, points in this direction. Comments from the rail regulator state that systemic weaknesses in Network Rail represent a “failure of the current arrangements as a whole … if it was working effectively there would be no need for us to intervene.”

Most rail industry stakeholders say the same. While they believe that Network Rail has made significant progress since the Railtrack disaster, “the current arrangements were established to recover from a crisis situation and are considered to no longer be relevant”. This “is believed to be holding back the development of the railway infrastructure”.

When Network Rail was created, it was recognised that the company needed to provide a public service, would be dependent on state financial support, and ought to be run in the interests of rail users – both passengers and train operators. This was why a non-profit structure was adopted, with a majority of appointed “public” members to oversee the organisation.

Astonishingly, according to the leaked report, only 32% of members thought that they were accountable to rail passengers, and only 37% to taxpayers. This compares with 38% who thought that they were accountable only to themselves. Stakeholders from the rail industry were more damning. Only 8% think that members are answerable to the general public, with 75% of passenger groups believing that members are “accountable to no one”.

Putting all arguments around corporate governance aside, Network Rail should be accountable to the passengers and the public for the simple reason that we pay for it. In 2006/7, Network Rail’s subsidy cost the average household approximately £240, with £4.16 of the average fare going towards the company’s operations.

The solution, as far as a number of key stakeholders are concerned, is the election of public members. Polling of passenger groups, political parties and politicians, the train operating companies and even Network Rail’s directors was all in favour of this, yet it was absent from the members’ recommendations. The cause for this was clear – Network Rail’s members were against it by a clear majority. It leads us to wonder whether “public” members prepared to act in such a self-interested manner are worth having.

For Network Rail to become truly accountable, all citizens must be given the right to become individual members. As a genuine mutual venture, Network Rail would then give all of its members the right to elect governor representatives to a members’ council, which would replace the role currently fulfilled by its existing membership. Industry members could continue to be nominated by their respective interest groups, be they train operating companies or trade unions.

Open membership systems deliver organisations that act in the consumer interest. If we are to get the rail network the British public want and need, Network Rail needs a structure that delivers real accountability – not just a pretence.

This article first appeared on the Guardian’s Comment is Free