Five of Cambridge’s prospective parliamentary candidates took part in an event run by the Cambridge University Railway Society on the 16th of January 2015.
Key elements of each candidate’s statements on railway policy:
- Rupert Reed (Green): Wants to renationalise the railways.
- Daniel Zeichner (Labour): Wants to ensure everyone is always sold the cheapest ticket and applauds the railway workers.
- Julian Huppert (Liberal Democrat): Says people don’t really care who owns the railway, that he thinks fares are far too high and he wants to see investment in rail rather than roads.
- Chamali Fernando (Conservative): Spoke in favour of private companies running the railways, but also in favour of spending public money on them.
When I consider rail policy my first thoughts turn to safety. I was living in Cambridge when in 2002 the London to Cambridge train derailed and crashed into Potters Bar station at just under one hundred miles per hour. Six people in the fourth, rearmost, coach died, someone walking nearby was also killed and seventy six people were injured. I followed the subsequent inquest via the daily published transcripts. The inquest jury determined derailment was caused by design flaws in a type of points and failures to properly maintain and inspect the track.
Just two years before there had been a crash at Hatfield (also on the London – Cambridge route, though not involving a Cambridge train), and in the years before that the UK had seen 31 deaths and 520 injuries at Ladbrooke Grove and seven deaths and 139 injuries at Southall.
While an image of a track inspection train was one of slides being shown on a loop at the hustings event there was no mention of safety by any of the questioners or candidates. In the first part of the session there was a focus on fares and funding so perhaps that makes it more understandable (although ensuring there’s enough money in the railways so that they can be safely run is key in my view).
I think perhaps the candidates were distracted by the pressing issues of the moment and not stepping back and considering what’s really important when it comes to running railways.
Perhaps the candidates are all confident that problems identified have been addressed, but I think we need to ensure that investment in infrastructure continues to enable the system to be kept safe and also to ensure a safety culture is maintained.
Network Rail is due to become subject to Freedom of Information from April 2015. I hope this will lead to more proactive publication of information enabling the “many eyes” of the population at identify problems and obtain material on which to base robust arguments for changes and improvements.
Aims of the Rail System
No candidate clearly articulated their views on what we’re trying to achieve with our rail system in the UK. There was no clear consideration of what we’re buying when we spend public money subsidising and investing in railways though through the course of the evening many of the factors were raised.
A key question is to what extent do we want to be subsidising and encouraging long commutes into London. With significant numbers of London commuters living, and voting, in Cambridge this is an important matter for the election here.
MP Julian Huppert (Liberal Democrat) was the only candidate to speak about trying to reduce the need for travel.
There’s a balance to be made between the level of fares, and encouraging, though subsidy to make railways more affordable, businesses basing themselves in central London.
I think this a case where there’s not a simple, extreme, answer and we need to pick the right point on the continuum.
The event was told that the share of the costs of running the railway are increasingly being borne by rail users through their fares and fares are on track to rise to 103% of operating costs (but are currently at 66%).
Cambridge MP Julian Huppert said fares are far to high and claimed his government had managed to “end the era of above inflation rail fare increases”.
Rupert Reed said a Green government would cut rail fares by 10%
Labour’s Daniel Zeichner was asked how is “everyone will pay the lowest fare” policy will work in practice. He responded “we’ll just make it law”. I think what this policy is seeking to do is not make it so everyone pays the same price, but when you buy a ticket you don’t pay more than you need to by purchasing the wrong type of ticket.
I certainly remember when I first used trains the experience of going to a ticket window asking for a ticket to somewhere to be quoted a ludicrous price and having to explicitly ask for cheaper options.
MP Julian Huppert supported the policy of ensuring everyone got the cheapest valid ticket for their journey saying there computers can easily be used to identify the appropriate ticket so it should be an easy policy to implement.
Conservative Chamali Fernando said it would be irresponsible to make all taxpayers fund the railways as only 8% use them – a stance which would lead to shifting more of the costs of running the railways onto travellers through their fares.
Cambridge’s MP Julian Huppert said the Liberal Democrats push for more investment in rail in contrast to Conservatives who prefer to invest in roads. He also spoke about progress on East-West Oxford to Cambridge railway, saying he expects the middle section to gain investment. Huppert also said a March – Wisbech railway would help people get to work in Cambridge.
Green Rupert Reed said he would put the A14 improvements on-hold to fund East-West rail. Huppert said while he doesn’t support big road schemes generally the A14 is unsafe and there’s a need to deal with deaths and collisions.
MP Julian Huppert spoke about needing better technology in the rail system; including technology for trains to know where they are.
Julian Huppert promised the new 3,000 space cycle park at Cambridge Station won’t be full in the first three weeks of opening.
Green Rupert Reed said he wants opening windows on trains.
Conservative Chamali Fernando lectured at those present, littering her speech with “ladies and gentlemen” and suggested private companies, profit and competition could, given public aspiration, lead to better services such as cleaner toilets on trains.
Labour’s Daniel Zeichner said the daily achievement of rail industry in moving so many people in and our of London is astonishing.
I thought Julian Huppert had a much wider breadth of knowledge and views than the other candidates – but then we’ve funded him to be a full time professional politician with a support staff for approaching five years now
Don’t Sell Train Tickets for Buses
One change I’d like to see in our rail system is a ban on rail companies selling you a train ticket when they know they’re not going to be able to offer a rail service but have a rail replacement bus on instead. I suspect this may be covered already under a consumer law somewhere, and the ease of accessing service information is improving, but I’ve felt annoyed on a number of occasions where I felt I should have been told at the time I bought a ticket when it was known there would be no trains when I’d said I wanted to travel.
Railways, like roads, are inherently public concerns in that long distance routes can only exist as a result of our society deciding to allow the compulsory purchase of land needed to build them. The degree of public involvement, and to what extent it continues into the operation of the railway is something we get to decide.
Network Rail is already publicly owned; and the train operating companies’ franchises are for limited periods so they could just not be renewed if a Government wanted.
That leaves the rolling stock operating companies, which the Green Party have estimated would cost £20bn to buy back.
There’s a question of how far you renationalise does “renationalising the railways” include nationalising the companies which build trains, which smelt steel, which make staff uniforms?
My view is you have to pick the bits is makes sense for the public to run.
If we’re going to have public run services we need to all take an interest in their management, even if that’s just carefully electing representatives who we trust to set the strategy and direction and monitor performance on our behalf. Public services without engaged and passionate leadership risk lumbering on without any drive to improve.
Depending on how much of the burden of funding railways it is decided to place on those who use them state run railways could be profit making.
This was the first time the four candidates who attended had appeared in public together.
UKIP’s Patrick O’Flynn did not attend.
A number of party activists were present distributing campaign material; the organisers asked this to stop after it had happened.
It appeared some Conservative activists had come along try and support their candidate by jeering and heckling those questioning her.