You can, I believe, tell a lot about a party’s policy by how it’s opponents react to it. When Ed Miliband announced an energy price freeze, the Conservatives denounced it as dangerous socialism, even as those at the sharp end of ever inflating bills welcomed it. When Labour announced measures to prevent excessive rent hikes and landlords turfing tenants out, Grant Shapps labelled it “Venezuelan-style rent controls”.
So when the Labour Party announced that they would permit the state to bid for rail franchises, the Tory reaction was of great interest to me. And, predictably, this was what James Duddridge (who may as well be Grant Shapps’ puppet) tweeted:
Labour want to renationalise the railways. Back to the misery line days. No thanks. @c2c_Rail
— James Duddridge (@JamesDuddridge) July 18, 2014
Like I said, predictable. And a shame, too, because not only is Mr Duddridge willfully misrepresenting the policy, but Southend is actually one of the places which it would best serve.
The idea is that when the various rail franchises come up for tender, as well as all of the private companies and foreign state operators who presently bid to run services, the British state will be allowed to put in bids. It’s not full-scale nationalisation — despite that option being absurdly popular with the public — but straddles the divide between a frankly pretty patchy-to-failed privatisation and renationalisation.
And you have only to look at Southend to see why this is a good option.
Southend is served by two train lines. The Shoeburyness to Fenchurch Street line follows the north bank of the Thames into central London. The Southend Victoria to Liverpool Street line takes cuts through more of rural Essex. The former is run by C2C and the latter by Greater Anglia.
The C2C line is generally well-regarded. Greater Anglia is…not. I’ve used both lines; I commute from Southend Central to Fenchurch street, and in my previous job I commuted from Southend Victoria to Liverpool Street. By and large C2C is the more reliable, and its trains are far better quality.
Privatisation has, from a non-ideological point of view, worked for the passenger on the C2C train. For the passenger on the Greater Anglia train, though, it has failed.
The thing about the Labour policy is that it would really open up rail franchising. In the case of C2C, if they are offering the best management of the line then they would be able to win the bid and retain the service. With Greater Anglia, if another provider — perhaps a state provider — could improve the service, then they could make a bid to take over.
The performance of East Coast Main Line — in public hands since National Express defaulted on their contract — has demonstrated that James Duddridge is wrong about state-run franchises. They are a viable alternative to the price hikes and declining service of some of the privately held franchises, whereby any profits made are invested in public transport rather than the pockets of bosses and shareholders.
I am a regular rail user, taking the train most days to work — and I think this policy has the potential to really improve the rail network. It has the same radical-yet-practical aspect which is emerging as a theme of Labour’s offer for next year’s general election. It would make a world of difference to Southend, and if you want proof of how good it could be, just look at how adamantly against it one of Southend’s MPs is.