Would a nationalised rail company buy hundreds of new trains for East Anglia?

Paul Geater with one of the new Bombardier Aventra trains being built for suburban lines in East Ang

Paul Geater with one of the new Bombardier Aventra trains being built for suburban lines in East Anglia. Picture: JULIETTE MAXAM/Greater Anglia - Credit: Archant

This weekend sees the party conference season move up a gear with the start of the Labour Conference in Liverpool – an event that politicos across the country will be watching closely.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities Dawn Butler MP Picture: Pet

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities Dawn Butler MP Picture: Peter Byrne/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Last week’s Liberal Democrat conference was a bit of a tasty starter – but I must confess I wasn’t paying as much attention as I normally would because I was dashing around the constituency of one of the party’s remaining MPs Norman Lamb while on holiday.

But both this week’s Labour conference and next week’s Tory gathering are expected to be very feisty.

The nature of party conferences is that extreme voices tend to get amplified. Over the years we’ve seen hundreds of occasions where people are outraged by the class warriors of Labour trying to overturn the state or the reactionary neanderthals of the Tories who want to reintroduce the birch or the gallows for any crime more serious than scrumping apples!

This year it is again the extremes that are getting much of the attention already – but there is a subtle difference in that while the extremists among the Tories (the Boris Johnsons and Jacob Rees Moggs of this world) are well away from the levers of power, in Labour some of the strongest words have come from allies of the leadership and shadow cabinet members.

Greater Anglia's Stadler FLIRT train being tested in the Czech Republic. Picture: GREATER ANGLIA

Greater Anglia's Stadler FLIRT train being tested in the Czech Republic. Picture: GREATER ANGLIA - Credit: Archant

I was particularly struck by shadow minister of Diverse Communities Dawn Butler praising Militant and the illegal council budget set by Liverpool in the 1980s which led to one of Neil Kinnock’s greatest speeches to conference.

Had she said that 20 years ago she’d have been thrown out of the party. In 2018 there’s been no murmur of criticism from her front-bench colleagues.

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I do wonder what the leadership of traditional parties like that in Ipswich think about this kind of statement. Labour-run Ipswich council has always worked hard to remain with the law and yet now this is coming from a member of the top table. That shows how the party is changing.

There’s also the talk of re-nationalising water and rail companies. I cannot claim to be an expert in the water industry but I am doubtful about whether a publicly-owned water industry would actually improve the service and cut the costs to consumers.

I do know a bit about the rail industry, and I’m convinced that a wholesale re-nationalisation of train operating companies would not be in the best interests of the passenger or the taxpayer as a whole.

Labour has never really been that good for the railways – it was a Labour minister (Barbara Castle) who was directly responsible for the widespread rail closures of the 1960s.

The Beeching Report was commissioned by the Tories who also appointed its author as chairman of British Railways. But the line closures which mainly took place between 1965 were signed off by a Labour transport minister (most by Mrs Castle).

Labour did save a few lines like Ipswich to Lowestoft – but it could have saved many more like Sudbury to Cambridge, Lowestoft to Great Yarmouth, and Cambridge to Oxford (which is now being rebuilt at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds).

But look at the facts of the post-war rail industry. There were 50 years of generally falling passengers and declining services. Since privatisation came in during the mid 1990s passenger numbers have more than doubled.

Of course other factors are also at play here – but you cannot just ignore the privatisation programme on ideological grounds. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and John Prescott recognised that when they were in power.

And privatised companies have brought in fresh investment. Does anyone seriously believe a nationalised rail company would replace every single train on the Greater Anglia network at a cost of £1.4bn? During the BR era trains in this part of the world relied on hand-me-down “cascaded” locomotives and carriages for decades. Would that have changed? I think not.

In fact a nationalised railway would have to compete for the Treasury’s billions with other government spending priorities – it wouldn’t be able to raise money for investment in the private sector as it does now.

Would the railways get the money they need? Or would the Treasury see more of a need for new hospitals, new schools, or other priorities? That’s what happened during the BR era leading to chronic under-investment and complex bureaucratic funding streams within Whitehall – an issue we already see with Network Rail to some extent.

But rail nationalisation is now seen as a popular policy (I suspect more with younger people who don’t really remember what BR was like).

It will be interesting to see what else happens during the Labour conference – especially what happens with the Brexit question where the leadership does appear to be out of step with its members.

I’ll be watching it unfold from my office in Ipswich and from the comfort of my sofa at home – but it looks set to be as good a soap opera as any drama on the box this week.

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