It’s time for change on Britain’s railways; radical solutions are needed to make them accontable and affordable, and contribute to sustainable regional development. There are many opportunities for reform of our railways, including inter-city services, Network Rail and building on the success of community rail partnerships.

Community Rail

The concept of ‘community rail’ developed in the early 1990s and quickly proved successful in promoting many local, primarily rural, railways across the UK, driving up ridership and bringing in additional small-scale investment. The Association of Community Rail Partnerships was formed in 1997 as the federal body of community rail partnerships and has won wide respect across the industry and government. Arguably, it was the success of the community rail model which inhibited a more determined effort to close down some rural lines in the early 2000s. The Partnerships included environmental improvements, art work, re-use of station buildings, schools involvement, music trains and other innovative schemes.

A future Labour government has an opportunity to transform some of the more peripheral local railways which have struggled for many years with limited resources. The basis is there with its own Community Rail Development Strategy (CRDS) – but it needs to take it further than its predecessors did. There are probably about ten lines in the UK currently operated as part of larger franchises which could become socially-owned community railways. The approach, however, could easily be applied to new railways which are desperately needed in some parts of the country which could act as feeders into the national network, e.g. Tavistock, Ashington and others.

The model suggested would involve creation of a co-operative which has multiple stakeholders – local authorities, employees and the wider community including local users of the line. It would own the infrastructure and rolling stock (with the option of hiring or leasing if required) and would also be able to develop other commercial activities. Rather than being a purely ‘railway’ company it would have a wider remit for all aspects of local transport, currently supplied by a fragmented range of operators – hence the suggestion of calling it a ‘community transport company’ (CTC).

Regional Rail

Britain’s regional passenger services are vital for the economic and social health of towns an cities. Regional railways should be accountable to new regional authorities and the Scottish and Welsh governments. New models of social ownership should be developed which avoid the top-down bureaucratic approach of the old British Rail. Both passengers and employees, as well as elected public bodies, should have a real stake in them.


If local train services can be operated by a publicly-owned enterprise there is no reason why the same should not apply to the national InterCity network. Here, there is a strong case for bringing the network back together as one, clearly-understood, brand: InterCity UK. This would require access to substantial capital and innovative approaches to financing which might involve bond issues to individuals, businesses and public bodies. A possible ownership split might be 50% state ownership with the remaining shares divided between local authorities, employees and passengers – with clear safeguards against private takeovers. The benefits would be enormous, with the re-creation of a single national, high quality operator of which the nation could be proud.

Network Rail

Network Rail, which owns and manages the rail infrastructure, is currently structured as a not-for- dividend company limited by guarantee. Yet its accountability is weak and it benefits from huge government subsidies. The railway infrastructure is a precious national asset and I believe the time has come to make it more publicly accountable. A socially-owned Network Rail would be a start, continuing the current policy of decentralisation to regional units which are responsive to train operators and to local and regional authorities.

The Co-operative Party have put forward a model for Network Rail reform that gives a direct democratic voice to passengers by establishing a clear chain of accountability between passengers and the Network Rail board.

There are opportunities for injecting greater accountability into our rail system at all levels, building on the success of community rail partnerships. Given recent above inflation fare hikes, the issue of rail reform will only continue to grow in public consciousness and at Westminster.

Dr Paul Salveson is visiting professor at the University of Huddersfield and a writer and publisher on rail issues. He is co-ordinator of the Northern Socialist Network.

This article first appeared on LabourList as part of our Conference takeover