Train cooperative on track in SW England?

Paul Gosling reports:

Electrification of the London to Swansea rail line is good news for public transport users in the South West and the Government’s approval for Network Rail to meet the £1 billion cost is a demonstration of real commitment not just to the rail system, but also to combating climate change.

But for many people away from the main urban centres, what is needed is more than just faster journey times to London. They demand connectivity that reduces rural isolation, makes journeys faster, cheaper and easier and improves the economic prospects of smaller towns and villages.

This is where Go! Co-operative comes in, which is not only one of the newest co-ops to be established, but also the most recently established train operating company. Its prospectus for raising capital is about to be published, with the ambition of raising a quarter of a million pounds over the next two years.

Go! Co-op intends to be the fifth train operating company taking advantage of the principle of open access to rail lines that is enshrined in legislation and which is intended to increase the provision of services by sharing existing lines. This provision enables additional services to operate alongside the main rail franchises. Existing open access rail operators include Heathrow Express and Hull Trains.

However, Go! Co-op would be the first open access train provider running as a multi-stakeholder co-operative that brings together the interests of commuters, workers and the communities that would be served, via their local authorities. It is backed by some heritage railway operators.

The co-operative’s business planning is already well developed, thanks to seed-corn funding supplied by Co-operatives UK and the Co-operative Group, through the Co-operative Fund, backed by practical support from the Somerset Co-operative Services.

Go! is looking at various routes, including local branch line operations and longer cross country services. Some of these involve open access services on Network Rail lines, while others would operate in partnership with heritage rail and other independent railway owners.

At this stage, it is not possible to say which routes will be pursued — detailed studies on line capacity and passenger demand are needed first, as well as more negotiation with potential partners.

The chair of Go! Co-op is well known co-operative activist, Tim Pearce — the South West regional organiser for the Co-operative Party until he retired three and a half years ago.

“Existing train services run to London,” explains Mr Pearce. “Our intention is to serve other communities that don’t have good connections to anywhere. Cross-country connections are important. We are looking to potential routes in the south of England on existing rail networks.”

The Go! Co-op initiative has been given extra impetus by the recent publication of the Association of Train Operating Companies’ (ATOC) document Connecting Communities, which supports the principle of much improved connectivity for isolated communities by making greater use of lines that, at present, run few services. “We are interested in underused and also closed lines and closed stations, but that’s a lot of money,” says Mr Pearce.

“We are interested in the electrification, but that is a long time ahead, at least five years. It does raise interest in the rail network and the South West is getting a fairer crack of the whip than it has in the past.

“We want to develop routes in the South, but including the North. We are hoping to develop routes from the South to the Midlands, servicing the West Midlands conurbations, developing links where they don’t exist.

“We are trying to raise money from potential commuters and from councils along the rail lines. We will run it as a multi-stakeholder co-op.

“The communities that benefit will have control over the service. We envisage a scenario where the guy who pushes the trolley can be on the board. I have been very impressed by the results of [societies’] board elections where you get electricians and so on elected to the board.”

Mr Pearce’s involvement in the project arose from a motion put forward to Co-operative Party Conference in 2007, which called for the mutualisation of Network Rail. “We have made some progress there,” says Mr Pearce. “We still hope to get a result from that and are fairly optimistic.

“We then organised a conference last year [on Network Rail mutualisation]. That was successful. It had a lot of rail people and Co-op people there. Basically the idea [for Go!] started to gel about that time and because of that conference.” With that momentum established, one of the founders the project — Alex Lawrie of Somerset Co-operative Services — invited Mr Pearce to get involved.

The timetable for progress is as impressively ambitious as the project itself. The co-op has already been authorised by the Financial Services Authority to raise the funds. It is also working with the FSA to develop rules that allow for withdrawable and transferable Industrial and Provident Society share capital raised from members and outside investors. Outside investors will have enough voting power to protect their investment, but in accordance with co-operative principles the passenger and employee members between them will have effective control.

Go! believes, given the example of the major fund raising achieved by windfarm co-ops, that it can raise the necessary investment. Assuming it does so, it hopes to gain route authorisation some time next year and begin services in 2011.

Ultimately, Go! has aspirations even beyond this — its motivation is to improve connections between communities, not just to run rail services. So it would also like to be involved in running bus services that feed the rail services and perhaps operate bike hire and car clubs.

It is one of the most impressive and ambitious co-operative projects to come forward in many years. But it is also firmly grounded in a sense of realism — it deserves wide support.

Rail for the people – or Brian Souter?

That’s the question. Should we have public transport or a subsidised cash-cow for a man made wealthy by the state?

RAIL UNION RMT today stepped up their pressure on the government to remove National Express from their rail franchises as new research shows that the company has made nearly half a billion pounds in profits from their rail operations in the past 10 years while sucking in nearly £2.5 billion in public subsidy over the same period.

Just under two weeks ago Transport Secretary Lord Adonis announced that he was taking the failed National Express franchise on East Coast Mainline back into public ownership. Since then, the company have made bullish noises that they will fight to retain the rights to run the service and have also thrown down a gauntlet to the government over National Express East Anglia and c2c which they should be stripped of under the “cross-default” clause.

Today, Tuesday July 14, a parliamentary adjournment debate will take place under the title Rail Services on the East Coast Mainline led by York MP Hugh Bayley where a growing number of MP’s will be applying pressure on ministers for National Express to be stripped of their rail franchises.

Bob Crow, RMT general secretary, said today:

“It’s now two weeks since the government announced that they would be taking decisive action over National Express on the East Coast and we are stepping up the pressure for the company to be dumped as a matter of urgency and for their franchises to be nationalised on a permanent basis, not as a short term, crisis measure.

“National Express have been taking us all for a ride. Not only have they milked the best part of half a billion pounds out of their rail operations but they have sucked in £2.5 billion in public subsidies in the process.

“Now National Express are leaving a potential rail funding gap of £1 billion behind after their chaotic performance on the East Coast Mainline and once again it’s the travelling public and rail workers who are left to pick up the pieces. National Express, along with the rest of the rail privateers, should be kicked off the tracks for good.”

I’d go further than Bob – I’d like to see the privateers prosecuted for their theivery.

Nationalised Express – public ownership for East Coast rail route

Great news, as it is a step towards ending the corporate domination of our railways which has cost us dearly both as taxpayers and passengers.

The general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union has backed the move:

“RMT welcomes todays announcement by the Government on the renationalisation of the East Coast route but this shouldn’t be a short term, crisis measure.

“It should be a long term solution to the chaos that privatisation has brought to the UK’s most lucrative rail franchise.

“RMT’s national AGM will send a clear message to the Government today that they should strip National Express of their other franchises and use this opportuinity to begin the process of renationalising the rail network,” said Bob Crow.

John McDonnell MP, RMT Parliamentary Group Convenor, said:

“The public control of the East Coast Mainline franchise should be a stepping stone to full and permanent public ownership.

“This East Coast franchise should be used as a public sector benchmark – and if the public sector performs better then let’s have other franchises back in public ownership too.”

The Green Party agrees, saying

The government should go further. Under cross-default clauses, the Transport secretary, Lord Adonis, could strip National Express of all its contracts, now that the group has handed back one franchise.

The Green Party remains the only major party in Britain to call for the full re-nationalisation of the railways.

Rupert Read, candidate for Norwich North and Green Party spokesperson on public services, said:

“Train privatisation, from the beginning, was a very flawed model. We can’t keep socialising private companies’ losses and privatising their profits. We need a national train network under direct public control and with full public accountability.”

“National Express must pay back whatever monies are outstanding from their rail franchise of the East Coast Main Line – it would be quite wrong for National Express to continue to profit on some lines, while the taxpayer has to foot the bill on others. To use the government’s own rhetoric, this should be a zero-tolerance issue.”

Sir Richard Branson, co-owner of the Virgin west coast franchise, has expressed an interest in bidding for the east coast franchise if it became available.

Read responded to this by saying: “Virgin would then have control of England-Scotland services, as well as London to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Doncaster. The entire idea of privatisation was to inject competition, and this would be substituting a public monopoly for a private monopoly. That cannot be allowed to happen, and as a Green MP for Norwich North, I would be absolutely steadfast in resisting it.”

Keep the Metro public, say MPs and trade unions

More information on the campaign to keep the best performing rail service in public hands, from the TUC:

There has been a strong trade union-led campaign welcoming the massive government investment in the Metro, but opposing any moves to allow private operators to cash in on this opportunity.

The campaign welcomes the government commitment for significant investment to facilitate the reinvigoration of the Tyne and Wear Metro.

Tyne and Wear Metro is an integral part of the social, economic and environmental infrastructure in the region

Tyne and Wear Metro is overwhelmingly valued and appreciated by the people and business community in the area

Tyne and Wear Metro has an excellent track record of service delivery, ahead of any private sector train operator, including punctuality, reliability, health and safety and customer service.

Kevin Rowan, Northern TUC Regional Secretary said, ‘The Metro is a major economic, social and environmental asset for Tyne and Wear and the investment to reinvigorate the system is desperately needed and very welcome.

‘It is an excellent example of public service delivery in the public sector, the fact that Nexus have been nominated for the Train Operating Company of the Year Award is testament to the terrific staff working on the Metro.

‘We are confident that the service can remain within the public sector – and adamant that it should.’

Jim Cousins, MP for Newcastle Central said: ‘Metro is one of the most successful public enterprises in England. I will do everything I can keep it as a public enterprise. The decision of Nexus to ask for bids for a single contract covering operation and renewal creates a very juicy target. It’s worth over a billion pounds over 7-9 years. I will be backing the ‘in house’ bid to keep Metro public.’

Councillor Paul Watson, Leader Sunderland City Council said: ”A £350M investment in the Metro infrastructure is a clear demonstration of both Local and National Government’s determination to ensure that this region has the best public transport system achievable.

‘It is good to see Nexus Staff and Management working together to facilitate the in-house bid, which I am sure will be an extremely strong and competitive one. This process will, I feel, be good for Sunderland, the Region and the Metro.’

Sharon Hodgson, MP for Gateshead said: ‘The Metro has been serving my constituency for almost thirty years and I’m delighted that the Government is committed to keeping the Metro running for another thirty years and beyond. It provides an important service to people of all ages across Tyne and Wear whether it is getting them to work, to the shops or to school. I’m confident that this funding will give Tyne and Wear a Metro service which is fit for the 21st century.’

Dave Clelland, MP for Tyne Bridge said: ‘I very much welcome this new lease of life that Metro has been given by the Labour government. The system can now continue to serve the people of Tyne and Wear for the next 25 years as it has over the past 25.’

Alan Campbell, MP for Tynemouth said: ‘My constituents value the metro but recognise it needs updating. The Government investment is welcome and a huge commitment to the future economic wellbeing of our area.’

Chris Mullin, MP for Sunderland South said: ‘The Metro is greatly valued in Sunderland. It is well-managed and efficient and I hope it will remain wholly in the public sector.’

NOTES TO EDITORS:

The Metro is an established and integral part of the North East social and economic infrastructure and has been for almost 30 years. The Metro is publicly owned by all five Tyne and Wear Councils. As it stands, it consistently out-performs all other UK transport systems. It has the:

Best safety record

Most productive staff

Lowest level of public subsidy

Highest level of trains actually run (99.5%)

Highest % of trains arriving on time (96.25%)

However, after 30 years of consistent heavy use it is in need of modernising to keep it the best and the government have made a very welcome commitment to inject a £350 million investment to facilitate the reinvigoration of the Tyne and Wear Metro.

There is currently a procurement process to show best value for the investment including an in-house bid from NEXUS which is being supported by Metro trade unions.

Secretive plans to privatise UK’s best performing rail service

Anyone who has ever been on the Metro will have been struck by the contrast to our privatised railways.

As with Royal Mail, attempts to involve the private sector in this service are couched in terms of gaining “investment” and “value for money”, debate is one-sided with privatisation offered up as the only solution, and public ownership derided whatever the truth of the matter.

From the Morning Star:

Transport bosses slammed for ‘secret’ Metro plans
(Thursday 22 January 2009)

ANTI-RAIL privatisation campaigners protested at the transport authority’s failure to come clean on its plans for the Tyne and Wear Metro on Thursday.

Protesters, including members of rail union RMT, demonstrated outside a meeting of the county’s Passenger Transport Authority (PTA) in Newcastle yesterday morning before attending the meeting.

The government has pledged £300 million to “reinvigorate” the service, which is already the best-performing in Britain. But Metro operator Nexus intends to invite private-sector bids to operate passenger services and maintain infrastructure.

An ICM poll conducted for the Keep Metro Public campaign in September found that 60 per cent of residents wanted the service to be publicly run, compared to just 22 per cent who favoured private management.

RMT regional organiser Stan Herschel pointed out: “We’ve already been stopped from speaking at PTA meetings, but now the authority has failed to keep its promise to respond to questions put to it in writing.

“This is supposed to be a publicly accountable authority, yet it appears to be doing everything it can to avoid answering questions about the future of the Metro. The PTA knows that there is overwhelming support for the campaign to keep the Metro public, yet for some reason it seems to think it can get away with ignoring public opinion.”

He stressed: “The authority spends huge sums of public money and we have the right to question what is being done with it, not least when there are plans to transform our Metro into a cash cow for privateers.”

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