Rail future is better in public hands

Morpeth Railway Station.
Morpeth Railway Station.

The recent announcement by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling on the future operation of the main East Coast railway line came as no surprise to me because it was further proof that public ownership is the best way forward for a successful rail network in this country.

The Minister told the House of Commons that the Virgin East Coast Trains franchise to provide the service between London and Edinburgh until 2023 would be terminated early, on June 24, and that it would be taken over by his department as “an operator of last resort” until a new public private partnership can be formed in two years’ time.

Put bluntly, his statement confirmed that the joint venture formed to operate the line by Stagecoach, with a 90 per cent stake, and Virgin Group, holding the remaining ten per cent, got the sums wrong when it pledged three years ago to pay the Government £3.3billion to run the service.

The truth of the matter is that Stagecoach and Virgin over-bid for the franchise and are now paying the price.

Quite frankly, the way the line — which is such a vital link between the North East and our capital city — has been run is little short of a fiasco. The current operators are the third to unsuccessfully try to run it, following on from GNER and National Express.

But what is telling is that when it was operated publicly for six years from 2009, it was successful, and that is a situation we have pledged to return to when we form the next Labour Government.

What Chris Grayling has announced falls short of nationalisation and, astonishingly, he has not ruled out Stagecoach being involved in some sort of future partnership to run the line.

All of this is no reflection on the gallant way staff on trains do their utmost to offer travellers the best possible service, and I know that from first-hand experience. Most weeks of the year I travel to and from London on an East Coast train to go about my duties at the House of Commons and the staff do an excellent job.

What we need going forward, however, is a better service, more trains stopping at Morpeth more frequently, and a fairer and affordable ticket pricing structure.

My journeys to and from London often start and end at Morpeth Railway Station, which prompts me to say that the two-coach commuter trains into Newcastle are desperately in need of improvement. They are ageing and need urgent replacement, while the station itself needs a make-over.

I am regularly informed about the progress of plans by the Greater Morpeth Development Trust to refurbish the station buildings and make space for up to seven small businesses there, and I do hope they will start to come to fruition in the not too distant future.

Morpeth needs a good rail connection not just to Tyneside, but to the national network because more people want to travel by train. Demand will surely only increase as more new homes around the town are occupied.

I understand there are also plans to improve parking facilities at the station, which will be welcomed by travellers.

The sad facts are, however, that another East Coast main line franchise has failed, and that is a situation we cannot allow to continue.

Our Leader Jeremy Corbyn has said that he wants to see a people railway in Britain, not one that lines the pockets of the private sector. The public want public ownership of our railways and our next Labour Government will deliver that.

The one ray of hope in the Minister’s statement came when he announced the brand name for the East Coast main line in the future — London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). It is an historic name that the whole of the North East was so proud of and one which I am certain we will be again in the future.