The UK Labour Party, which is currently the ‘official opposition’ to the government, is readying for a general election. As part of preparation it has published a new policy document for rail: “Labour’s plan to fix Britain’s railways”. 

It has caught the public attention by proposing a part-renationalisation of the passenger rail sector, but notably without forcibly ending TOC contracts or taking rolling stock into public ownership. 

Railway Technology has spoken to stakeholders across the UK rail ecosystem to gauge the industry reaction to the proposals. 

Paul Plummer, Director of the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education 

“There’s a lot to like about the proposals from the Labour Party. And there’s a lot in common with the current government’s policy.  

“There is common ground about the creation of a guiding mind covering track and train and to enable politicians to get out of the detail. It’s good news that Labour wants to progress quickly to this new way of working by setting up Great British Railways in shadow mode in advance of legislation. And it’s hopefully common ground that the GBR needs to empower local teams to do what’s right for customers and taxpayers.  

“There will be a wider range of views about the role of [the] private sector in operations. But what matters is customer experience and value for money. So it’s good to hear that the Labour Party does not have a dogmatic or universal position and there is at least a role for private sector freight operators in supporting our climate agenda and support for open access operators as a catalyst for improved focus on customers. 

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“The railway needs a long-term plan which is underpinned by a clear technical strategy, consistent investment, innovation, a more diverse workforce and inclusive customer experience. Hopefully whoever is in power will enable long-awaited change.” 

Mark Plowright, Director at Virgin Trains Ticketing

“It’s encouraging to see Labour recognising the role the private sector has to play in selling train ticketing and helping passengers to get the best deal on their travel. Rail retail is a key part of the puzzle when it comes to rail reform. However, to really deliver on fare simplification, we need to address the outdated rules and regulations that limit how independent retailers, like Virgin Trains Ticketing, operate – doing this will ensure retailers can offer passengers services like Delay Repay and features like tap-in-and-out contactless payment.

“We agree with the Shadow Transport Secretary that it’s crucial the rail industry is not ‘inward looking’ and that’s where retailers like Virgin Trains Ticketing can bring huge value to the sector by investing in innovation and growth and stimulating the competition needed to drive the best deal for passengers.” 

David Pitt, Vice President of UK Rail at SilverRail

“Labour’s pledge highlights critical and long-overdue discussions about the future of our rail system. However, it’s important that driving for change in the industry isn’t viewed as a political issue, but rather a necessity to enhance operational efficiencies and improve passenger experiences.

“While nationalisation debates will undoubtedly continue, it is crucial that all parties – government, unions, and the private sector – collaborate to address immediate concerns such as service reliability and customer satisfaction. We believe that rather than being a black and white issue in terms of nationalisation or privatisation, there is room for an improved middle-ground approach that combines elements of public oversight with private sector innovation and competition.

“This may represent a positive path forward, allowing for the best of both worlds in terms of accountability and efficiency. Our goal remains clear: to ensure rail travel becomes the first choice for passengers across the UK. Let’s not allow necessary reforms to the rail system to stagnate in political discourse. Instead, we must take decisive action to move from potential to reality, making the railway system efficient, affordable, and passenger-centric.”

Darren Caplan, RIA Chief Executive

“It is important that the political parties set out their plans on what they would do if they won the forthcoming General Election, and so the Railway Industry Association welcomes the Labour Party’s contribution to the debate on the future of UK rail.

“We welcome the pledge to make rail reform a priority early in the next parliament, which would give certainty to our members about the future structure of the railway industry, and also the commitment to a long-term strategy, which RIA has been calling for in recent years. It is also positive that rail is recognised as essential to economic growth, integrated transport connectivity, levelling up the nations and regions of the country, and in helping to deliver Net Zero; and that there is a need to deliver value for money for the taxpayer in rail.

“We now look forward to hearing others’ contribution to the debate on the future of rail.” 

Maya Singer Hobbs, IPPR senior research fellow

“The British public are rightly frustrated by the sorry state that UK rail has been allowed to descend into and we welcome Labour’s ambition to fix this.  

“Establishing Great British Railways could provide a real opportunity to simplify ticketing, improve service quality for passengers, invest in rail more effectively and give the public more say.  

“Labour’s plan to better utilise rail freight is essential to cutting emissions and getting unnecessary traffic off our roads. It will also greatly help the UK economy, by supporting manufacturing and industry across the country. 

“IPPR has long argued for a greater role for local leaders and communities in shaping rail services. Labour’s plans to give devolved leaders a statutory role would be a major step forward and should extend to mayors having the option to take control of commuter routes. 

“We’ve now seen Labour’s buses plan and their rail plan – what we hope to see is how Labour would join the dots across different modes to truly transform people’s experience of getting around the country – helping more places approach London-style transport.” 

Maggie Simpson, Rail Freight Group Director General

“We are pleased that the Labour Party has highlighted the huge economic potential of rail freight and is committed to measures including statutory duties for freight and long-term growth targets. Our members are working to get more goods moving by rail and we strongly welcome this support.”

Andy Bagnall, Rail Partners CEO

“Train companies agree that change is needed for the railways, but nationalisation is a political rather than a practical solution which will increase costs over time.

“Creating a thriving railway for customers and taxpayers does not have to be an ideological choice between a monopoly railway in public hands and one that delivers private investment and innovation through franchising.

“There is an alternative plan which gives the best of both worlds and is already being used by Labour Mayors and increasingly across Europe.

“To change the railway for the better, we must correctly understand the causes of the current situation to get the right solutions. Since the pandemic, train companies have been effectively renationalised and subject to a level of micromanagement by government not even seen under British Rail. Exclusively blaming train companies for all the challenges facing the railway doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. 

“Over time, the increased costs to the taxpayer of nationalisation due to the loss of commercial focus from private train companies will lead to either reduced train services or increased subsidy. That means rail competing for funding with other public services like the NHS. Historically, British Rail often lost this battle.

“Private train companies have a track record of regrowing the railway in the two decades prior to the pandemic having doubled passenger numbers, increased the number of train services by a third, and turning a large cost to the taxpayer into an operational surplus for the Treasury. They want to partner with whoever is in government after the election to achieve these successes again.

“There’s already an alternative plan that has been proven to work, exploiting the investment, innovation and commercial expertise of train companies but under the public control of a new governing body to join-up the railways and act on behalf of passengers. Rail users in London already benefit from this approach used by the capital’s Mayor to run buses, trains and trams. Manchester’s Mayor takes the same approach for the Bee bus network. 

“Labour’s proposals are also moving in the exact opposite direction to what we’re seeing across Europe where other governments are seeking to copy the previous successes of the British model using competition amongst train companies – both for contracts and on the tracks – to reduce subsidies for taxpayers and provide a better service for passengers. 

“We welcome the recognition in Labour’s plans that private sector freight and open access operators have a lot to offer. But ejecting private train companies from the railway will create a prolonged and messy transition at a time when we need all parts of the railway to pull together to deliver for passengers and freight customers.’ 

Transport UK

“Transport UK is committed to working collaboratively with any political party in government to achieve better outcomes for customers and enhance the overall efficiency of the UK’s rail network. Our priority remains ensuring the highest service standards while fostering innovation and maintaining financial stability. We think that the top-quality expertise and operational excellence of capable and trusted providers like Transport UK will continue to have an important role to play, and we look forward to working with all stakeholders to achieve our shared objectives.”

Mick Lynch, RMT general secretary

“Labour’s commitment to bring the train operating companies into a new unified and publicly owned rail network is in the best interests of railway workers, passengers and the taxpayer.

“We strongly welcome these bold steps to fix 14 years of [Conservative Party] mismanagement of our privatised railways and Labour’s promise to complete a transition to public ownership within its first term in office.

“For too long private companies have made millions in profit from taxpayer subsidies and in return provided appalling levels of service.

“This announcement however should be a first step to completely integrating all of our railway into public ownership.

“It is time for a railway fit for the 21st century that serves the public, not the privateers and shareholders.”

Gareth Dennis, railway engineer and writer

“Labour’s plans do address some of the challenges the current industry faces, however, it leaves several of the biggest problems entirely unresolved. One of these is the lack of a unifying mission for the industry, ideally an increase in mode share versus road and air by a set date, which would allow broad plans to be developed for network and service expansion.

“The second is the retention of the rolling stock operating companies as they stand currently. These already represent the largest source of rent extraction in the industry, accounting for as much as a billion pounds a year of profit being extracted from an industry that receives around £10bn from government. That’s as much as a tenth of its subsidy being extracted and squirrelled away in low or zero tax havens never to be seen again by rail users or taxpayers.

“The train leasing model also incentivises shorter, less customised trains that make the travelling experience worse for passengers. Until the ROSCOs are gone, the industry will not reach its full potential.”