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Changing tracks: What Labour's railway plans could mean for engineers

Chris Stokel-Walker

(Credit: Shutterstock)
(Credit: Shutterstock)

The outcome of the general election could have a significant impact on engineers.

The local election results across England and Wales in May, especially when coupled with repeated opinion polls of how the British public is feeling about the current government, sent a strong signal of what the likely outcome of a general election will be when it comes next month.

Unless something drastic happens in the polls, we will be entering a new era of government – under a new party, Labour, for the first time in 14 years. While many things will change under a government of a new stripe, one significant shift could be felt in the engineering sector. Labour's plan to bring Britain's railways back under state control within five years of taking power has raised questions about what it means for the engineering sector and the future of major infrastructure projects. While the policy signals an ideological shift away from years of privatisation, it lacks specific details that are crucial for those working in the rail industry.

The plan would be part of “the biggest reform of our railways for a generation,” shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said in an April speech.

“It marks basically the first major reversal of a Tory privatisation,” says rail expert Christian Wolmar. “This is a statement of intent to say: ‘We don’t agree with Andy Bagnall of Rail Partners, who says this is going to cost money, be a disaster, and we need the private sector.’”

The decision has been welcomed by the industry, including Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Rail Industry Association (RIA). “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,” he says.

However, how fundamental the rest of the reform will be is still up for debate. “The Labour Party will take, I think, 70 to 75% of the existing [Rail Reform] bill,” says Tony Lodge, speaking before Haigh’s late April announcement. “That [bill] will be enacted with a Labour government.”

Beyond that, uncertainty reigns – particularly when it comes to investment, which ultimately will dictate where, when and at what scale the UK’s rail engineers will be working in the years to come. “There's not a lot about investment plans, and there is no detail,” says Wolmar. “Is there anything about investment in there at all?" he asks. Notably, Labour has said it will bring all passenger rail back into public hands, but not all rolling stock or privately-owned freight, which could come with its own challenges if private- and public sector-owned stock is to interact smoothly

In other areas, Wolmar believes there will be significant, and speedy, change in the rail industry. At the heart of Labour's plan is the intent to renationalise the railways by bringing franchises back under state control, a move Wolmar believes could happen very swiftly. “I think the franchisees, while they're no longer franchisees or contractors, get to see the way the wind is blowing, They're going to go: 'Oh, can we be bothered with these contracts which are reputationally risky?'”

At that point, seeing that it’s unlikely they’ll be welcomed by a new Labour government, and recognising that the risks of running a rail franchise have already increased in recent years, they’re likely to either not bid for new franchises, or to hand back or forfeit the existing ones.

One big area that Wolmar says is relatively uncertain at present is what happens to Network Rail – and how it will be made more efficient (or not). “I do think as an engineering magazine, you’ve got to be demanding what plans Labour has for this, and what are they going to do about HS2 and more widely,” he says.

Wolmar says it’s a widely-held belief across the industry that Network Rail is inefficient and costs too much money for its standard of performance. But his key question is how Labour plans to fix that. One thing he says could be a point of difference between Labour and the Conservative government currently in power is whether they position Network Rail at the top of the tree when it comes to Great British Railways, or to devolve some control further down the chain – something that he believes Labour may be tempted to do.

“Network Rail should be there to serve, not there to control the industry, and the present Tory model suggests that it’s going to control the industry.” That said, Wolmar does point out that Labour has been relatively silent on whether they will be adhering to, or cleaving away from, that approach.

Although there’s certainty in some areas of how a Labour government will reshape the rail industry, there remain many questions that haven’t yet been answered – and are unlikely to until the next Prime Minister gets the keys to Number 10. 

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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