Liberal Democrat policy on railways

Liberals must be on the side of business – ambitious for business – tearing down the barriers that stop businesses from fulfilling their ambitions. It is unambitious for the government to power down the Northern Powerhouse by stalling promises to electrify the Transpennines route. Instead, we say – invest in the best rail links in Europe.

Tim Farron, 23rd September 2015

This is the first of a couplet of articles on the subject of the railways this morning.

In August, on a comments thread, I outlined the Liberal Democrat railways policy, in response to a commenter.

I notice that commenters are still asking what our policy is on the railways, so I thought I’d set it out in a post.

First of all, here is a statement from the BBC news magazine from March 2015:

The Liberal Democrats are opposed to full nationalisation, arguing it would cost too much. But the current anomaly, whereby public sector rail operators from abroad can win franchises here while UK public sector operators cannot, should be ended, says a spokeswoman.

Now here are the words on railways from our May 2015 manifesto:

Liberal Democrats are leading the renewal of Britain’s ageing infrastructure but we still have decades of under-investment to catch up on. We need better transport infrastructure, a modern railway system, and less congestion on our roads.

We have established our second fiscal rule precisely so we can invest in productive infrastructure to help the economy grow.

We will:

  • Set out 10-year rolling capital investment plans.
  • Develop a comprehensive plan to electrify the overwhelming majority of the UK rail network, reopen smaller stations, restore twin-track lines to major routes and proceed with HS2, as the first stage of a high-speed rail network to Scotland.
  • Invest in major transport improvements and infrastructure.
  • Deliver the Transport for the North strategy to promote growth, innovation and prosperity across northern England.
  • Develop more modern, resilient links to and within the South West peninsula to help develop and diversify the regional economy
  • Complete East-West rail, connecting up Oxford and Cambridge and catalysing major new housing development.
  • Ensure London’s transport infrastructure is improved to withstand the pressure of population and economic growth.
  • Work to encourage further private sector investment in rail freight terminals and rail-connected distribution parks.
  • We will set a clear objective to shift more freight from road to rail and change planning law to ensure new developments provide good freight access to retail, manufacturing and warehouse facilities.
  • Ensure our airport infrastructure meets the needs of a modern and open economy, without allowing emissions from aviation to undermine our goal of a zero-carbon Britain by 2050. We will carefully consider the conclusions of the Davies Review into runway capacity and develop a strategic airports policy for the whole of the UK in the light of those recommendations and advice from the Committee on Climate Change.
  • We remain opposed to any expansion of Heathrow, Stansted or Gatwick and any new airport in the Thames Estuary, because of local issues of air and noise pollution. We will ensure no net increase in runways across the UK.
  • Ensure new rail franchises include a stronger focus on customers, including requirements to integrate more effectively with other modes of transport and a programme of investment in new stations, lines and station facilities.
  • We will continue the Access for All programme, improving disabled access to public transport.

Modern light rail systems, like Croydon Tramlink and Manchester Metrolink, have brought significant benefits to passengers. We will encourage Local Authorities to consider trams alongside other options, and support a new generation of light rail and ultra-light rail schemes in towns and cities where local people want them.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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This entry was posted in Party policy and internal matters.


  • Chris Johnson 24th Sep '15 - 10:58am

    Agree with most of our railways policies but still not sure about the benefits of HS2. My feeling is either the cost of the project far outweighs the benefits or, alternatively, it will drive further traffic/investment to London/South East and not help the Northern Powerhouse aim. What about investing in the North generally first rather than create means by which more business will “leak” to the South?

  • What I find strange is the reporting today on the BBC site: – The image of a ‘Capitalist’ Chancellor George Osborne, sat on a nationalised train in a Communist country, wanting/inviting the Chinese Government to bid on contracts for HS2 – Talk about ‘alternate reality’! 🙂

  • I think there’s a strong argument for what Chris suggests about connecting the northern cities together before building HS2, and, if we were having this conversation in 2005 when HS2 was first being proposed, I’d have real sympathy for it.

    The problem is that the UK’s planning processes for large projects generally take about 10 years before you start building anything. If we started now on work for a major northern rail investment, the first digger would start cutting into the ground in 2025 or so. HS2’s first section (London-Birmingham) is due to open in 2026, so if you insist that a northern railway get built first, that doesn’t mean that the northern railway would happen any sooner; it just means that HS2 would be later.

    From where we are, here are my suggestions for HS2:

    1. Redesign Leeds HS2 station to be capable of being used as a through station, so a future Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds line can connect to it and then trains can run through Leeds to York (for Newcastle) or Selby (for Hull).

    2. Plan a new line from Liverpool to the HS2 mainline. This would be the first part of the Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds line and would be useful on its own by speeding up London/Birmingham to Liverpool trains and also relieving busy railway lines in Cheshire, allowing more rail freight.

    Both of these, with a moderate amount of additional funding (something like £5bn, ie 10% of the overall HS2 budget), could be incorporated into HS2 Phase 2, without delaying anything else – the Liverpool station (the most complex thing to construct) might end up opening a couple of years after the other new stations (ie Manchester and Leeds) but the rest of HS2 would still open on time.

  • Then, the longer-term process should be to kick off the HS2 extension from York to Newcastle, and the “HS3” route connecting up Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds-HS2 (and then either north to York/Newcastle, south to Sheffield/Nottingham or possibly east to Hull).

    Separately from that is the question of extending HS2 to Scotland, which would require building from Bamfurlong (the proposed HS2 junction with the existing line, near Wigan) to Glasgow Central and Edinburgh Waverley stations. That’s a long way – as far as the whole of HS2 – though it should be much cheaper to construct (two parkway stations at Preston and Carlisle, two city stations in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and only one junction, compared to the five junctions, four city stations, and four parkway stations of HS2).

    There might be a budget or other resources (e.g. skilled workers) competition between the TransPennine and the Scotland-England line. Prioritising the two is ultimately a political question; there isn’t an overwhelming technical or economic case for one over the other(1). I’d like to build both at once, but if we can’t, then I’d prioritise the North of England over England-Scotland links – but I suspect that living in Manchester might be biasing me on that one. I do think that’s a question that needs to be answered in the next few years – probably about 2020-1 at the latest.

    Note that any HSR connections for (south) Wales(2) and the west of England get stuck behind this, because anything there would require another station in London, and the only cheap (under £10bn) options have been used; we’d be chucking £20bn+ at the London property and construction market for a third HSR station in London – so I think we should get the most we can out of Euston (and St Pancras) before we shell out that sort of money again in London.

    (1) The business/economic cases for the two are very different from each other, so you can make either one look much better by picking different assumptions or by prioritising some things over others; for instance, Anglo-Scottish will get much more rail/air modal shift, while TransPennine will generate more agglomeration and more economic activity in the Northern cities.

    (2) North Wales can potentially be connected to HS2 via Chester.

  • All of this should run in parallel with investment in the existing railways; we’re still going to use the existing lines for commuters and regional rail, as well as for freight. Getting the TransPennine electrification programme unpaused is still necessary; even if we’re going to build HS3, it won’t open until the end of the 2030s, and Manchester-Leeds can’t wait 25 years. It wouldn’t be wasted afterwards either; that’s also the Huddersfield-Leeds and Stalybridge-Manchester commuter route, and a key freight route as well.

    We should adopt a plan for a rolling programme of electrification until the entire network(3) in England and Wales is electric (the Scottish Government has already done this for Scotland). This would be much better than having a series of separate projects (Great Western, TransPennine , Midland main line, etc) because you’d be saying “we’ll spend x billion a year until it’s all done” and that would allow for long-term planning, would enable people to plan careers in rail electrification, and would gain all sorts of efficiencies from building an experienced and skilled team. A delay in one project will push all the others back – but that’s the case anyway, as that’s what’s happened with the Great Western Main Line electrification with supposedly separate projects.

    (3) Less a small number of rural lines where service is so infrequent that electrification makes no sense. The Heart of Wales line is one such example.

  • Alisdair McGregor 24th Sep '15 - 12:27pm

    What Gadsden said

  • Neil Sandison 24th Sep '15 - 12:28pm

    I have a lot of time for light rail and tram systems to re connect our conurbations regarding local rail networks .Those old lines axed under Beeching are still there many rescued by Sustrans to be used at a later date as alternative modes of transport .Whilst many have contributed to the cycle network other still remain dormant and could be and should be brought back into use. They would certainly ease the growing congestion in our urban areas and reduce traffic pollution and would offer good green travel routes as our policy on housing growth is implemented .Rail in all its forms should offer sustainable transport systems .

  • Ok so Lib Dems are in favour of privatisation, not nationalisation, as long as ” public sector operators” from the UK can bid alongside private sector operators? Or as long as “public sector operators” from other countries are banned from bidding too??

    I thought the Lib Dems were in favour of shared ownership but perhaps that was in the past?

    Sorry but this article confuses more than it illuminates.

  • “The Liberal Democrats are opposed to full nationalisation, arguing it would cost too much.”

    Obviously, not been paying attention to how the franchise system operates and what J.Corbyn has said about renationalisation; or are the ‘costs’ being alluded to some other cost?

    I agree with Phyllis, we need greater clarity of ownership, which would seem some form of shared ownership PLC/CIC. With respect to J.Corbyn, what I find particularly interesting is that it is the Unions who are wanting renationalisation; which would seem to indicate that they actually want to return to the security of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ of the past, rather than embrace the future: I find it telling that the Unions, for all the vast experience of their members and their reserves are unwilling to stand up and bid for a franchise in their own right… So both Labour and the Conservatives have handed the LibDems an opportunity to be decisively different and still they show themselves to be woolly and indecisive…

  • @Roland: repurchasing all the trains from the ROSCOs would cost a fortune. You could easily just let every franchise expire and not relet them (you’d still have open-access competition, but you can’t stop that under EU law anyway) but neither the government nor the franchisees actually own the trains. So you’d either have to buy them from the ROSCOs, or route all new trains through a nationalised ROSCO and then eventually replace them when all the private trains are end of life in 50 years or so.

    “What do we want: a nationalised railway; when do we want it: by 2070”

  • Matt (Bristol) 24th Sep '15 - 1:39pm

    Phyllis – I’m not sure from what you say if you’re assuming that we have is full ‘privatisation’ (which it isn’t).

    What Major’s government created was part-privatisation on a publically-regulated franchise model. (ie the nation ‘owns’ the railways, it just lets private business run them but it does not give business an endless lease, or no targets to hit).

    The current policy as laid out by Paul seems to accept the model for train operation put in place by Major as modified slightly by Labour as a fundamental settlement to which no significant change is needed. But it’s important to note that there isn’t any desire for further privatisation here, either.

    The policy as stated seems to see new public money going into the infrastructure, and not into the operation of passenger trains (although Nick Clegg did talk frequently about investment in rolling stock at one point). The statements about freight operation do not seem to envisage much more public intervention or operation, but they are a bit vaguer.

    I think you’re right to be concerned about the statement on the BBC website, which doesn’t directly relate to the policy Paul quotes. It could be taken to be read either way, but without a clear and unambiguous commitment from the party to public sector operation of trains on a larger scale, I think we could assume that as of May 2015, the party would have chosen to bar foreign public operators, and would not hoave moved to enable any (not-really-existent) public operators over here to compete in Europe.

    However, the policy does seem to allow for larger-scale direct-owner public operation of light railway networks than either Labour or the Tories were looking for at the time.

  • Graham Martin-Royle 24th Sep '15 - 2:14pm

    @Roland:Asle&f did actually put in a bid to run the east coast main line several years ago.

    Apart from that, wot Richard Gadsden said. 🙂

  • @Richard Gadsden – Is there any evidence that the ROSCO’s are fleecing the public? Is there any real urgency in having wall-to-wall nationalisation?

    I don’t see any real problem with the ROSCO’s, given as you indicate the government (of any colour) would prefer the debt/capital investment to be off-book and hence would set up a nationalised ROSCO with pretty much the same financial arrangements as are currently in place.

    But yes I take the point there is a subtle but important cost difference between ‘renationalisation’ and ‘full nationalisation’ depending on when you wish to achieve it.

    @Graham Martin-Royle re: ALSEF’s ‘bid’ – Yes they got much press for it’s ‘intention’ to put in a bid, but I can find no evidence that they did actually submit a bid…

  • @Roland, I think the ROSCOs paid undervalued prices for the ex-BR rolling stock and have made excess profits from the leases thereupon. Post-privatisation stock, where they paid the actual costs to Siemens, Alstom, CAF, Hitachi or Bombardier (in a highly-competitive international train manufacturing market) is much less profitable, and their profits seem to reasonably reflect the risk they take that the trains won’t be used much after the first lease (usually 15-20 years) runs out.

    One reason why more predictability in infrastructure (ie a long-term electrification plan) would be a good idea is that it would reduce the risk premium on rolling stock. For obvious reasons, an electric train can’t be used on a non-electrified line, and a diesel train is rarely used on an electrified line. But if you’re buying trains that will last 30-40 years, you need to buy then on the basis of how much will be electric and how much diesel in the 2040s and 2050s. Or you charge a premium on both to reflect the risk that they won’t get used.

  • Morgan-Ross Inwood 24th Sep '15 - 9:39pm

    I did a Rail Policy analysis in light of the ICWC Franchise mess-up by the Department for Transport a few years ago where I argued that the system will be only tweaked and that there won’t be any fundamental changes.

    I have been quite vocal about this elsewhere but I believe the Party should have a comprehensive Rail policy that looks at everything in depth including the costs of various rail projects and maps. The debate over ownership of the Railways I thought was settled but the debate has be reopened due to Jeremy Corbyn. The system developed under the 1993 Railways Act and amended in 2000 and the 2005 Railways Act is not perfect but we should be making the system more open and transparent, the system should have better regulation, fares needs to be looked at etc.

    I am making this point separately as it deserves it and that is regarding Network Rail and it is something the Party should look into given that has been reclassified as a public body by the ONS which means its debt is on the government accounts. There are a few reviews into NR, one of them is being conducted by Nicola Shaw which is looking into the governance and financing of Network Rail. She has recently said that privatisation is an option on the table

  • @Morgan-Ross, some of us are attempting to set up a special-interest organisation for transport within the party called Lib Dems On Track. If you’re interested, do get in touch (I’m sure that LDV will pass you my email address). I’ve also tweeted you.

  • Jonathan Pile 25th Sep '15 - 2:19pm

    It seems to me that Lib Dem Peers and policy wonks should give HS2 plans much more scrutiny. While High Speed Rail is a Lib Dem commitment : HS2 was a Labour plan, rejected by its authors Mandelson & Darling .Here is a project opposed by the public 50-80% according to different polls, and with a cost estimate spirilling to £50-80bn according to different projections. If we accept the premise that Trident will come out at £100bn – then so could HS2 ! This bill alone seems reason to cut the project down to a single affordable North:South link with a Manchester-Leeds HS3 given priority for the so called Northern Powerhouse. Cost savings could be channelled to a Scottish High Speed route, and more importantly the real investment called for by business : High Speed Broadbank & High Speed Social House building. My own outline plan proposed for the party in 2014
    An HS1 extension remains a plan which deserves scutiny. Manchester, Birmingham would be better served by fast speed capacity improvements rather than HS2. Nationalisation is an old red herring which would divert resources from needed improvements. George Osborne’s Chinese investment plan is dubious given China’s economy & safety record. Putting £12bn of tenders out before Parliamentary or Royal Assent is Osborne’s supreme arrogance .

  • Morgan-Ross Inwood 25th Sep '15 - 3:44pm

    I forgot to include a point about HS2 in previous post so I am making it now.

    Given HS2 is likely to go ahead then attention should be on connectivity to HS stations as the Potteries, Macclesfield and Stockport may see their current InterCity services to London downgraded to an Inter-Regional service.

    Thank you for the Lib Dems On Track invite and I would be interested in joining though I am not sure what I would add to it

  • There really isn’t much to LDOnTrack beyond the idea of doing something as yet, so I don’t honestly know what anyone would contribute to it. It was mostly just Alistair and I saying “this would be a good idea”.

    As for HS2 / Stoke / Stockport – I think one of the spare ex-Heathrow paths can be used for a CC train to run from London to Birmingham Interchange and then come off HS2 at Lichfield to go Stafford-Stoke-Macclesfield-Stockport (and possibly extend either -Stalybridge-Huddersfield or -Manchester as there isn’t really platform room at Stockport to terminate there). That would be an hourly service, which is what all the stations bar Stockport currently have (and Stockport only has trains every 20 minutes because they’re the trains that start in Manchester)

  • Morgan-Ross Inwood 25th Sep '15 - 10:03pm

    I mentioned in my first post the Shaw Review into Network Rail’s Governance and Finance which is due for publication next Spring but there are two other Reviews into Network Rail announced. Peter Hendy is conducting a Review into the investment programme and is due to report anytime within the next few months. The other Review is by Colette Bowe which is looking into what happened and lessons learned and this will be published within the next few months

  • Richard Gadsden
    Your post of 24th Sept at 3.36pm contains some simplistic assertions “an electric train can’t be used on a non-electrified line, and a diesel train is rarely used on an electrified line”. In fact those assertions are far from the truth, especially with new technological fixes. We have hybrid power units on trains, incorporating both diesel and electric traction. We now have electric trains with battery storage to enable an electric train to travel some distance over non-electrified lines. We have anything up to quadruple voltage units enabling travel across electrified lines using different systems. We also have plenty of diesel haulage over electrified lines, where it is either too expensive / difficult/ time consuming to change locos, or the train being used is a diesel unit which has to operate a section of the journey over non-electrified track. You also neglect to mention that many conversion jobs have been done (OK at a cost) on existing stock / locos.

  • Neil Sandison
    Unfortunately many many railways closed through the Beeching process are not able to be restored, they have been blocked by selective land sales, new estates etc – Exmouth to Feniton (the former Sidmouth Junction) and Winchester – Alresford are just two off the top of my head (Alton to Alresford is of course operated by the Watercress preservation rail company).

  • Frankly, Britain is struggling to catch up with other countries (especially European ones, with whom our railways are now linked). Since the dropping of the Advanced Passenger Train project (APT) in the 70s, and the early adoption of neoliberal economics (Thatcherism to you and me) combined with the lady herself and her notorious dislike of all forms of public transport – then amplified by nuLabour’s sidelining of electrification – we have become simultaneously a backwater of rail progress and the hub of a very welcome large increase in rail travel.

    The imperative of climate change, along with the actual and nascent passenger demand really means we have to invest quickly. Yes, that means yet more money. Some way should be found to ensure the Network Rail financial problems do not create a long hiatus in this process. My reading of the situation so far is that under the current Government it will. I will be interested to hear how Corbyn / McDonnell Labour develop on this topic. At present, our leadership shows no real appetite to move away from OB economics, so could very well be pale Tory.

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