By Dave Reid
The Welsh government has announced, with great fanfare, handing the new £5 billion Wales and Borders rail franchise to multinational corporation KeolisAmey. Not only has it re-privatised the operating franchise – it has handed over the tracks and stations too
Under the current franchise, Arriva Trains has been running the Welsh rail system into the ground. With powers over rail transferred from Westminster to the Welsh government, here was an opportunity for Welsh Labour to carry out Jeremy Corbyn’s policy of bringing the trains back into public ownership and starting to provide a decent service to long-suffering, overpaying customers.
But yet again the Welsh government has taken the Blairite road of Tory privatisation.
Welsh Labour could have set up a public company to operate the trains. If any legal barrier to this proved too immediately complicating, it could at least have set up a not-for-profit company, running on publicly owned tracks, with the whole operation under the control of Transport for Wales.
Instead, the Welsh government has handed the lot over to KeolisAmey – train operations, tracks and stations.
The whole process has been shrouded in secrecy. The Welsh government claims this is not its preferred option, and it does not have the power to effectively nationalise the 15-year franchise. But the legal powers available to the Welsh government are unclear.
On the basis of building a campaign with the unions, the weak Westminster government could be overcome. What is lacking is not the powers, but the political will to fight for publicly owned public transport.
Many rail workers and passengers are asking: if the Tory government in England has been forced to bring the East Coast Main Line service back under public control, why could the Welsh Labour government not do the same?
The details of the deal have not been released yet. So rail workers and users do not know what kind of service and level of job security there is.
But unlike Labour authorities in England who have not supported keeping guards on the train, the Welsh government has promise to retain them. Mick Cash, general secretary of transport union RMT, has welcomed this. But if some of the trains are replaced by trams, will guards be retained on those routes?
Wales’s underfunded transport infrastructure is creaking. The new franchise is charged with delivering the new South Wales metro system, integrating rail, bus and tram services to alleviate the transport mess that has developed.
But that has been used as the pretext to privatise the tracks and stations currently publicly owned by Network Rail. Rail unions have been fighting the attempts of the Tories to hand over tracks and stations to their private corporate friends – but Welsh Labour is carrying out the Tories’ policy for them.