- This feature was published in RAIL 907 (June 17-June 30).
In the immediate aftermath of the 2019 General Election and a shock Conservative majority, if you had been told that within six months the passenger operators on the UK rail network would be nationalised and franchising effectively ended, you would probably have laughed.
Renationalisation, and not just of the railways, had been a big theme of the Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn. Details on exactly how the process would have worked remained vague, but the clear message for four years had been that ownership of train operating companies (TOCs) would return to Government should Corbyn end up in Downing Street.
Corbyn, of course, lost. But fast forward six months and while Corbyn is not a resident of Number 10, his policy of renationalising the railway effectively is.
Boris Johnson led the Conservative party to a landslide victory, mainly built on ‘Getting Brexit Done’. But such has been the impact of COVID-19 that even Britain’s planned (and subsequent) departure from the European Union has vanished from the front pages, replaced by Johnson’s Government’s response to the pandemic and how to protect UK citizens and the economy.
Most companies (including Bauer Media, RAIL’s publisher) advised their employees not to travel, be it by road or rail. This has placed severe strain on train operating company finances, and so on March 23 it was confirmed by Government that Emergency Measures Agreements (EMAs) would be introduced with immediate effect.
Initially lasting for six months, the scheme has so far cost £3.5 billion (RAIL 906). Train services were reduced across the country and the public was advised not to travel unless absolutely essential.
Even now, with service levels being increased on an incremental level, the advice remains not to travel. Longer trains are running, but only to encourage social distancing.
In April, Sir Keir Starmer replaced Corbyn as Labour leader and set about creating his own shadow cabinet. Recognised as not leaning as far to the left as his predecessor, nevertheless Starmer is in favour of nationalising the railways.
On April 6, he appointed 39-year-old Jim McMahon as his new Shadow Transport Secretary (replacing Andy McDonald). Eighteen days later, via Microsoft Teams, McMahon spoke to RAIL.
“This is my dream job,” he says. “I recognise transport has an impact on everyone’s life.”
The grandson of a former British Rail lorry driver based at Mayfield (Manchester), McMahon has been interested in transport for most of his political career, which began as a local councillor in his early 20s.
Born in Miles Platting (Manchester), he left school at 16 and became an apprentice technician at Manchester University. He rose through the ranks to become a senior technician, before leaving in 2004 to join local government as a regeneration officer and, latterly, a town centre manager.
His political career began at the age of 23, when he was elected onto Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council in November 2003 as a Labour councillor for the Failsworth East ward.
McMahon held several roles on the council before becoming Labour group leader in 2008. In 2011, after the party regained council control, McMahon became leader of the council and sat on the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. He was responsible for transport and in that role oversaw the continued expansion of Manchester Metrolink.
In 2015, he was selected as candidate for that year’s by-election for the Oldham West and Royton seat. He won with 62% of the vote. That same year, he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to the community of Oldham.
He turns to the COVID crisis and to the Emergency Measures Agreements: “The Government is under pressure and being tested by a crisis on this scale, but you cannot leave them to it. There will be a significant recession, or at worst a depression. All the benefits of rail will go, so we need to hit the ground running and accept that some deals cannot be saved.
“It’s about how much the Government gives. It’s not enough for them to pay small service cover for the likes of Transport for London and Transport for Greater Manchester.”
Since the interview, TfL has received a £1.6bn bail-out, while TfGM has been given £13.3 million to keep it operational until the end of August.
McMahon looks beyond the pandemic: “Will people travel? We don’t know. We need to remember that not all people can work at home, and that it’s usually frontline key workers who can’t. They are also often the lowest-paid. So, what financial model does that bring?”
He also makes the case for the need to consider the quality of life for those who do have to commute: “You should not be worrying if a train is late. And cheaper tickets would mean more money, so people could have a better life.”
Even in late April, McMahon was concerned about social distancing and passenger safety: “We are looking to get the economy back, but there could be a risk in that we put the economy before safety. We need to get back on track for the economy, but we need guidance - what about Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?”
Beyond the virus, McMahon discusses issues that he believes could yet have a major impact on the country, especially as we adapt to whatever is deemed ‘the new normal’.
“Before this struck, we were preparing to leave the European Union and there are big questions for this. We need to do more legwork. Last October, the regulatory committee looked at the costs involved but could not look at the transitory period.”
What about the problem facing some train builders, whereby various components (right up to bodyshells) could be denied entry at ports for having the wrong paperwork as part of the new rules? This would then have an impact on train construction.
Currently, trains are assembled in the UK at Derby (Bombardier), Newport (CAF) and Newton Aycliffe (Hitachi), with factories planned for Siemens (Goole) and for Talgo (Longannet). But many components remain imported.
McMahon agrees: “One area examined was goods, and it transpired it was unknown what goods were moving. This is critical because you need to know what is happening.”
Perhaps there could be a solution for this?
“We need to build here. Post-COVID, the market will never be the same again. It’s also proven that we are too reliant on China . Jobs need to be available and we need to advocate skills.”
McMahon is also a keen advocate of HS2: “For the economic recovery we need big capital schemes. I would argue there is more logic in constructing HS2 from the North as well as London, and we could meet in the middle.
“A lot of HS2 is about capacity. But it must not be forgotten that it’s important for freight, too, and for decarbonisation. That is critical. HS2 can free national capacity.”
Being an MP in northern England, McMahon is only too aware of the importance of schemes such as HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail.
“You cannot separate HS2 from HS3,” he tells RAIL, referring to plans for a new railway between Manchester and Leeds as part of a much-wider project to improve connectivity across the North.
There is also frustration in how long major projects take. Then-Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis launched the plans for HS2 in 2009. It’s planned to be fully open (to Manchester) in around 2036.
Says McMahon: “Twenty-seven years from proposals shows how poor we are at projects. A government needs long-term planning, but there is none for that far in advance.
“We need to help. You need the skills to build these projects. People think it’s one big train set, but it’s not. These projects provide jobs.”
McMahon is keen to extol the virtues of the railway over other careers, perhaps casting an eye back to his own family. “There used to be a time, especially around my constituency, where you went into an apprenticeship, but that doesn’t happen so much. That is where rail is really important, because those opportunities do still remain.”
Bearing in mind his background, it doesn’t take long for devolution to enter the conversation.
In nearby Manchester, Mayor Andy Burnham has been highly vocal about Transport for Greater Manchester taking control of suburban services in the region. McMahon supports that but discusses how this could work.
“A lot of devolved routes are looking for tram-trains. Why stop in just Leeds or Manchester? What of other cities?
“My preference is to move towards more devolution. Rail journeys need integration, and devolution is crucial to that however you construct the ownership of the railways. There are so many issues that need to be identified through devolution, including pricing and technology. It is not about making it work from London, but from the areas concerned.”
Hailing from the North West, McMahon is all too aware of the Northern franchise and its current status in being run by an Operator of Last Resort (OLR). Local Labour mayors were critical of Arriva when it ran Northern, frequently calling for it to be nationalised, even when commentators highlighted that many of the problems were caused by Network Rail - including delays to electrification and the May 2018 timetable chaos.
Nevertheless, McMahon says of Northern: “It just makes the case for nationalisation. People will accept a delay to their trains, but not cancellations that cause overcrowding. The Pacer trains became a symbol of the problems.”
But what was Northern meant to do, bearing in mind that the Class 142s and ‘144s’ had to soldier on in service beyond their planned withdrawal dates, due to the late delivery of cascaded trains and the late entry into traffic of the £500m, 101-strong order of CAF multiple units?
“That does not explain how dirty the trains were, though. Network Rail may have caused delays, but that still doesn’t explain the condition of the trains. It’s not the management who receive the flak from passengers, it’s the frontline staff.”
McMahon goes into more detail on nationalisation and why he thinks it should happen: “Even before the pandemic, the public were in a better place regarding their understanding of the situation. Fares had shot up. Investment in rolling stock was not good.
“With a nationalised rail service, what can you do? With fares, £1.7bn was taken out in dividends that could have been spent on the railway.”
With decarbonisation on the agenda, what rolling stock does McMahon believe should be ordered?
“There is a natural view of purchasing new rolling stock that is green. But one element is that the technology now is not what it will be in the future. I want the UK to be the centre for green technology. Climate change is not going to go away.”
That’s the future, but what of now? Several schemes first mentioned in the final months of the previous Labour Government have been ‘paused’ or cancelled, including electrification of the Midland Main Line, the Windermere branch and Cardiff-Swansea. Two of these will be served by bi-mode units (MML and in Wales), while the North West branch could be used to test alternative traction - most likely battery power.
In the meantime, Network Rail is working on a decarbonisation strategy to be published this year, while both the infrastructure company and Government have spoken of the need for more electrification. It’s fair to say the messages are mixed, so what’s McMahon’s view?
“The truth is you have a suite of options. The cost of electrification doesn’t make sense in some places.”
When pushed in the past, Labour was coy about the exact nature of its plans for renationalisation. And now?
“The immediate focus is COVID-19 and the financial resilience followed by the phased reintroduction - how do you prepare? We are trying to be supportive of Government but challenge where there are gaps. It’s not about politicising the pandemic.
“Then there is the EU and not taking our foot off that, while also looking to 2024 and how do we make that work and how we can be attractive . We are working on the details of nationalisation.”