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Mary Creagh: the next transport secretary

31 March 2014

Five months in to her new role, TSSA Journal caught up with Labour’s shadow transport secretary, Mary Creagh, to quiz her on her vision for the future of our railway.

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Meeting Mary in her busy Westminster office, the walls covered with maps of the proposed HS2 route, it’s clear that she is well on the way to developing an in- depth knowledge of her brief. The MP for Wakefield has much to do in the

13 months before she could be walking into the Department for Transport as part of a Labour government, but is clearly relishing the challenge. A proud user of East Coast (‘our railway’) and Northern, Mary speaks with real passion – not just about the railways, but across the areas of her brief, from buses to aviation.

“It’s a fantastic job! It’s also very challenging – the Department for Transport has a £13bn budget. There’s a big part of this job related to national infrastructure and national economic life, but it’s also about keeping the cost of living down and making sure that services are there for the people who need them.”

Staff cuts?

But despite the growing recognition of the need to grow capacity on the railway, the McNulty Report suggested huge cuts to staff – is this really the way forward?

“There’s a series of questions about why the railways in the UK are more expensive to run – is that because of fragmentation, because it’s not integrated between track and train? The row over the Mayor of London’s closure of ticket offices has thrown things into very sharp relief. I know from my own station in Wakefield that people want staff to be there, people want to be able to buy a ticket, they don’t want to be queuing and they certainly don’t want to be fined when they get off because the ticket office was shut or the machine wasn’t working. It’s clear in terms of the passenger experience that having staff there is absolutely essential. Also, if we’re going to have a railway accessible to disabled people, we need to have the staff to help with that. Also, to ensure we have a safe railway, guards on trains are absolutely vital. Technological changes should be there, but the important thing is to make sure that stations are staffed, welcoming, friendly, and that people can get the help they need.”

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Moving on from franchising failures

In 13 months time we may have a Labour government faced with a steady stream of franchising decisions. Leaving the system ‘as is’ would lock in private franchising for another generation. Doesn’t the country deserve something better?

“What East Coast shows is that you can have a directly operated railway. Who knew! It challenged the orthodoxy that there was in the Labour Party that a directly operated railway was somehow illegal or not allowed under European law.

At the time, we had to say it would be done for a certain period of time, but it has shown that a directly operated railway can run a railway. That’s a good thing!

“I want to see a directly operated railway continue in some shape or form. The East Coast franchise competition is underway – I’ve worked with TSSA and sister unions to try and stop that – but we have said that we will have a directly operated railway after the next election. Even if East Coast is re-franchised, we will find a way to have that. Having that direct public sector comparator and allowing them to bid for franchises is really important, both for getting a good deal for the franchises, but also having a backstop if any of them go bad.

“Franchising has not done well under this government. The last five years have been a pretty rocky ride for it, but if you examine the finances of the railway, and look at the railways we have to subsidise, like Northern, a vital community railway, somehow the money has to come in to run them. Is it best if it’s a direct operator? DOR’s given £200m back in 2012/13 to the government – that’s a big chunk of money and we have to make sure big chunks of money come in. Whether that’s through franchising or a directly operated railway, we’re still looking at that.”
 

HS2 integrated into the network

Developing a high speed rail network for Britain is clearly a project that would need to outlive not just the present government, but the political careers of many currently in Parliament. Labour’s support is vital and whilst at the time of the interview we were still awaiting Sir David Higgins’ review, she was clear that this is a much-needed project with the capacity to transform our railways.

“It’s clear that we need HS2 to tackle the capacity issues we face. We have to do something to tackle the congestion that means that people are every day enduring cramped and miserable conditions on their way into Birmingham, Euston, Leeds and Manchester. But it’s also clear the project has not been well served by this government – costs have spiraled.

“We need to make sure, particularly with Phase 2 of the project, that we don’t create winners and losers and we need to look at how that big investment fits in with the next 15 years of railway spending. We need an integrated plan, including public transport, active travel – walking and cycling – and our bus network. There’s no blank cheque for this project. We’ll be making sure we get a railway that works for the 21st century and that helps us get jobs and growth across the whole of the country and not just building a recovery in the South East.”
 

A vision for rail

Mary is also clear that rail’s multi-billion pound draw from public spending, ministers should be setting a clear direction of travel for the industry: ‘I’m yet to hear a Conservative Secretary of State set out their vision for what the railways should be. In my last five months in office, I’ve been thinking very deeply about accessibility, cost, the need for better timetabling, better information for passenger, fewer cancelled trains and being much cleverer about how we manage our rail assets.”

Now that Network Rail is to be a full public-sector body, what needs to change there? “Governance is the issue. A board with 30 members is, in my mind, too big. The accountability of the board – where does that rest?

“We also want to look at how you bring down the costs of rolling stock – that’s another post-privatisation problem. There’s been some limits shown to the privatised model – what can we learn from that?”

There are still many questions to be resolved – and much campaigning work we need to do to ensure Labour comes to the right conclusions, but as Mary says, “We’re going to need TSSA’s members to help to keep us running the railway in the public interest.”

 

Manuel Cortes comments

In Mary Creagh, we have a shadow minister serious about preparing Labour for government, but it’s also very clear that much work remains to be done to push Labour to adopt our vision of a publicly owned railway. We need to play our part, both inside the Labour Party and beyond, working with our partners in Action for Rail, to fight for a system of public ownership that puts people – passengers and workers – ahead of profit.

Last autumn’s Labour Party conference overwhelmingly endorsed a TSSA motion calling for public ownership to be extended as each franchise expires. We’ll be pushing a similar demand through Labour’s manifesto process over the coming months. Labour members should contact our political officer to help with this, whilst everyone should help put these demands via the joint-union Action for Rail campaign.


 

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