As devolved administrations move further from Westminster, now is the time to advance popular demands like rail renationalisation, says Jan Culley
The Welsh government will take control of the Wales and Borders rail franchise in February 2021.
Rail services have been hit by a significant fall in passenger numbers during the Covid pandemic. Passenger numbers have reportedly collapsed to their lowest since the mid-19th century.
The Welsh government will directly control operations of the 900-mile network under state-owned Transport for Wales (TfW). Rural lines, Cardiff commuter lines and long-distance routes between North and South Wales via Chester, Wrexham General and Shrewsbury are part of the network. TfW also operates services to Manchester, Crewe and Birmingham from Wales.
The move comes after the failure of bailout talks with the current operator KeolisAmey and is happening under a part of railway law that allows for the creation of operators of ‘last resort’. Future operations include a partnership whereby KeolisAmey have responsibility for tracks and other rail infrastructure, including work to deliver an upgrade to the commuter Valley Lines network.
KeolisAmey is a joint venture partnership of international public transport operator Keolis, and infrastructure asset management specialist Amey. Keolis is part of French state railway SNCF, while Amey is a division of Spanish infrastructure firm Ferrovial SA. KeolisAmey took over the franchise from Arriva Trains Wales in 2018 and were contracted to operate services until 2033. It was the fourth-lowest ranked operator out of the 24 in the UK in autumn 2019 with passengers citing overcrowding, cost and punctuality as issues. The train company has been fined £2.3m by the Welsh Government for poor performance since taking over the contract.
Welsh Labour’s policy in 2019 gave a commitment to ‘rebuild our railways as an integrated public service’ with the aim ‘to develop a model where the responsibility and powers for passenger services and infrastructure are comprehensively devolved to the Welsh government in a way that harnesses the significant knowledge and skills of both the staff that run the railway and the citizens that use it’.
Previously, the implementation of one of Jeremy Corbyn’s key policies, the re-nationalisation of rail, franchise by franchise, was an expectation. In 2017, however, Welsh transport minister Ken Skate announced that devolved powers were limited and did not allow for the rail system to be brought under public control, adding that the government would hand over tracks and stations to the private companies that won franchise bids.
The announcement comes against a backdrop of Tory bailouts to privatised train companies and a refusal to bailout the public sector Transport for London.
Unions have welcomed the announcement. TSSA General Secretary Manuel Cortes and RMT General Secretary Mick Cash have challenged Scotland, with greater powers than the Welsh government over rail services, to follow suit. Further pressure has come from Scottish Greens and Scottish Labour.
UK law prevents Wales from permanently retaining the rail service in public ownership. Mick Cash called on the UK government to ‘give the Welsh government the necessary powers and support to ensure the railways in Wales have a safe, secure and sustainable future in public ownership’.
The Scottish government has stated it is now ‘considering all options’ when the ScotRail contract expires in March 2022.
This is the latest instance of the devolved administrations making decisions separate from Westminster since the pandemic began, and it’s clear that the future of the union grows more precarious by the day.
The decision to renationalise has also come in part because of a growing public mood for change. Rail nationalisation has always been a popular policy and Labour should be using this opportunity to demand renationalisation across the country.
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