Why we need publicly-owned railways to address the climate emergency

3rd December 2019 | Evidence

Below is an extract from A Radical Transport Response to the Climate Emergency – the excellent new report by our friends at Transport for Quality of Life, which explains why taking our railways back into public ownership is an urgent climate issue.

A Radical Transport Response to the Climate Emergency

It is worth explaining why we believe that changing the structure of the railway so that it is a single entity operating under public control is necessary in the context of a climate emergency, as the very live debate about the structure of the railways has not been framed in the context of action on climate change. There are four reasons why we believe that the current poor governance of the railway is a climate issue.

First, under the present system, Network Rail receives bids for train paths from train operators and has to try its best to fit them together. This is rather like trying to form a coherent picture from random pieces of different jigsaw puzzles. Network Rail has no power to design the most operationally-efficient timetable, or to create the most attractive offer to travellers. Were it to try to do this, it might receive legal challenges about access rights from the train operating companies or the Office of Rail and Road. Exacerbating this, the specification for each franchise is made in isolation and with little or no consultation with Network Rail, precluding a system-wide approach to timetabling. This means that it is next-to-impossible under the current structure of the railways to create a Swiss-style integrated clock-face timetable, which is essential as part of a universal, comprehensive public transport network.

Second, under the current structure of the railways, ticket purchase for anything but a straightforward journey with a single train operating company is excessively complex, and this, together with the high cost of rail travel, deters many people from travelling by train.

Third, fragmentation of the railway between multiple competing train operating companies means that when things go wrong, the passenger is often stuck in the middle: trains are not held to meet delayed services run by other operators (even if the delay is of a few minutes), and a ticket for one operator’s trains may not be accepted by another. Again, this means that people feel that they cannot trust public transport, and so they travel by car.

Finally, there is no objective for the railway to be run in a way that reduces carbon emissions – and nor can there be, because ‘the railway’, as a single entity, does not exist. These problems are structural, and it is only by changing the structure of the railway so that it is a single entity operating under public control, in the public interest, and with an objective to act in such a way as to reduce carbon emissions from transport to the greatest extent possible, that they can be resolved.

Transport for Quality of Life has carried out research in this area and is of the view that public ownership is necessary to achieve this. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have not carried out research in this area so do not have a position on public ownership, but do believe that the structure of the railway needs to change to be managed as a single entity and under public control.

Extract from A Radical Transport Response to the Climate Emergency (p.14) by Lynn Sloman and Lisa Hopkinson, Transport for Quality of Life