By Joe Fortune

Transport may not sit at the top table of election issues; however, as the UK seeks to bounce back from the worldwide recession and pressure on jobs increases, public transport is likely to rise in importance. This is in the context of the coalition cutting Department for Transport expenditure by proportionally more than most other departments.

We in the Labour and Co-operative movements must ensure that the coalition do not get away with the ambivalence they showed through opposition regarding the need for the development of a high class public transport system. At both the recent SERA AGM and Co-operative Party conference it has been demonstrated that many colleagues feel likewise.

The co-operative movement and its principles offer much to UK transport and corresponding government policy. For example, The Guardian reported on Thursday that the UK railways were the most expensive in Europe and the infrastructure manager Network Rail is operating at a cost inefficiency of 40%. The paper summed it up by stating the UK industry is the ‘poor man’ of Europe.

Personally, I have a slight issue with the view that the UK industry is the ‘poor man’ of European rail. To be honest, we run the railway pretty well especially in terms of punctuality and reliability. Both of these measures compare favourably around Europe. More people are moved on our railways than most if not all other EU countries each year. We use and trust our railways to the point where capacity is rightly a big issue. It is worth remembering quite how big our network is – for instance, East Anglia has more train services per day than the entire Dutch system. Network Rail is an organisation the German infrastructure manager is keen to learn from and we all know that ‘German trains are fantastic’, right?

However this is not the whole story.

The government regulator – the ORR – is trying to hold Network Rail to account. It is hard for them through, given the individual financial set-up of many European networks, allowing the industry to knock back European comparisons. It may seem obvious but the UK needs a UK benchmark for Network Rail costs. There is a great UK benchmark project waiting to go on the Merseyrail concession. Regrettably, although the then Labour government were supportive of the project, they left it to Network Rail to decide whether they wanted to make this happen. Guess what…Network Rail didn’t fancy it.

This nods towards a major issue within the culture of Network Rail. Aside from the rail unions’ legitimate concerns over individual members of the senior management team, the organisation itself has a problem. This problem goes further than the shocking wages and bonuses dished out by the board to senior employees. The organisation itself thinks it is – and should be – untouchable. I heard one senior manager tell a conference last year that the ‘government should stay out of how Network Rail does its work’; the resounding answer must be, “fine, as soon as you are investing £4-5bn of your own money per year, the government will stay out but, as long as Network Rail are spending taxpayers’ money and spending it with an inefficiency of 40%, just be the company limited by guarantee you were set up to be.”

We are stuck with Network Rail – we need them, they need us. They wanted city borrowing powers to start to raise their own money. I remember chatting with a couple of the big investment banks about their powers and asked whether they would be raising money for them – ‘no,’ came the answer, ‘if necessary how would we get our money back from them? They can’t sell the track can they?’ This means that the old adage that money for the railways only comes from two sources – the taxpayer and the farepayer – remains the case.

Network Rail’s culture must be improved and they must be held more accountable to the people they serve – us. The governance structure has long been deficient, the company’s own ‘members’ forced the organisation to bring in PwC to review its governance. Among the many recommendations (which had to be extracted from Network Rail by Lord Adonis), improvements were suggested which mirror the Co-operative Party’s ‘People’s Rail Campaign’.

Our campaign demands changes to Network Rail’s model to make it a more mutual organisation and more accountable – this is now a must. The coalition government may look to change the structure but currently their ‘Big Society’ thinking means they are looking at just making more appointees rather than anything truly ‘democratic’. You can find out more about the ‘People Rail Campaign’ by visiting the campaign website The campaign has the endorsement of the TSSA.

There are other areas of the rail industry where co-operative ideals can add to and improve the way in which it operates and deliver better value for money for the taxpayer and farepayer. ASLEF have indicated that they would like launch an employee-owned bid for the iconic East Coast Railway. This endeavour must be applauded throughout the movement. If this bid were to be successful, the profits would be invested straight back into the operation of the railway rather than going to a small group of shareholders and senior executives. We should seek to make sure that the government, which manages the franchise bids, ensures that ASLEF’s employee bid competes on a level playing field.

Elements within the Co-operative Party are also well along the track of establishing a rail link not currently served by any other operator. This co-operative – GO! – will look to provide green transport options for communities whose only real alternative option is the private car. Again this co-operative will be able to re-invest any surplus straight back into the service.

Between the ‘People’s Rail Campaign’, the employee bid for a franchise and the budding open access operator there is a real need for all interested elements within the Labour and Co-operative movements to get involved and deliver the Co-operative Party’s good news message of co-operation and mutuality to an industry in need of better serving the people who fund it.

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