Parliamentary Officer Joe Fortune, also transport coordinator for SERA, the Labour Environment Campaign, writes for Progress on the mutual options for the railways.

As the Labour party seeks to develop a policy platform which will both stands up to peer scrutiny and capture the electorate’s imagination the Cooperative party and movement has much to add.

There are many views on the railways in all quarters but currently what seems clear is that the UK railway industry will not stop requiring significant public subsidy (the Department for Transport’s latest report sees this increasing over the medium term), the industry will not allow people a voice or real influence over the service which is delivered. It will continue to leak out dividends to shareholders through its operating companies and its infrastructure will be maintained by Network Rail, a company which sees itself as a FTSE 100 company when in fact it is owned by us the people. This all pervasive feel of disfranchisement in the current rail system is underlined by poor employee and union relationships with the maintenance company Network Rail and a feeling of being ‘ripped off’ on the part of the travelling public.

It is clear to many within the wider Labour movement that the travelling public and employees  should have a greater stake in and feel ownership over this service. Within the travelling public there is also clearly an appetite; for instance a 2009 YouGov survey showed that 81 per cent of regular rail users felt that they should have more say in the way they were run. There are many practical and deliverable ways this could be done.

The governance structure of Network Rail has rightly been much criticised and blamed in part for their £2.3bn inefficiency (as highlighted by the McNulty Report and the Office of Rail Regulation). The People’s Rail Campaign provides a robust improved governance structure which will not only give the people who fund the company a democratic say in the way in which it is run but improve the overall running and accountability of the organisation.

Train operating companies have been seen to focus on the bottom line rather than the communities and people they serve. The UK’s railways are at the forefront of where other European countries seek to follow. As such radical steps in terms of holding on to expired or relinquished franchises which are converted in to mutual organisations governed by passengers, local communities and employees would provide real leadership in terms of European thinking with regard to this industry. The mutual organisation would not be beholden to shareholder pressure or leak significant amounts of public subsidy or profit out of the industry.

Another practical and important policy an incoming Labour ministerial transport team may wish to see is stronger, more influential city-region transport authorities. These bodies would be better equipped to tackle a lack of integration which blights our system and provide more balance and accountability with regard to the train operating companies. The stronger regional bodies would be strengthened and improved through public and community membership and involvement. This would help banish the Tammany Hall reputation of some local authorities  and local authority institutions which can leave local services being seen as far from communities as Whitehall.

Finally, another practical step would be greater government support for community rail partnerships. There are currently over 50 such organisations in the UK. These are vital organisations, often a cooperative or mutual organisation, which ties the local community and people to our railways. Often lines which have been given up on by the commercial operators are maintained and operated the community which knows how important they are to their locality. An example of public interest companies delivering becoming involved with the railways improving facilities and driving up passenger numbers can be seen in the Severnside Community Rail Partnership. This community interest company, covers local routes in the Bristol area, including the branch to Avonmouth and Severn Beach. It runs through some of the most deprived parts of the south-west.  The partnership is working to make stations more friendly and welcoming and to reduce crime, vandalism and antisocial behaviour.

Measures such as these described above and other cooperative and mutual lessons will deliver cost saving to the taxpayer, tackle inefficiency and a lack of accountability and deliver a railway with a greater social conscience regarding the country they serve.

An approach based on the essential cooperative principles such as democracy, accountability, transparency, self-help, sustainability and training and education would bring passengers and communities much closer to the ownership and running of transport systems and solve the deficit of democracy that leaves many feeling as if services are run in the interests of private companies, rather than themselves.

This article first appeared on ProgressOnline