A public sector operator will be running trains as soon as possible under a Labour government, with the current franchising system set to be scrapped, the shadow transport secretary has indicated. Michael Dugher said privatisation had been a "disaster", although he stressed Labour was not championing the return of the state-run British Rail.
Labour has previously promised to review the franchising system in order to allow a public operator to challenge private firms for the right to run services, but Dugher has gone further in saying he would like to see the current regime "in the bin".
The party has proposed creating a new body responsible for co-ordination and strategic direction of the railways which will have passenger representation at its core to end what Mr Dugher called the "stitch-up" between Network Rail and the Train Operating Companies (TOCs).
Dugher stressed Labour had changed from the approach adopted under Tony Blair, when the party abandoned the commitment to public ownership enshrined in Clause IV of its constitution.
"This is not like 1997, that whole deference to markets and the private sector, that's gone too," he said. In a New Statesman interview Dugher said: "Privatisation was a disaster for the railways. I'm adamant about putting the whole franchising system, as it stands today, in the bin." Dugher said that under Labour "the public sector will be running sections of our rail network as soon as we can do that".
He insisted that "it's not going back to a 70s, 80s model of British Rail but I think you can do far more to make some really big changes and that's why I'm talking about a public sector operator". Explaining the plans for the new strategic body, he said: "I'm going to be honest and proud about this: I want there to be more public control of the railways and we should just say it because, actually, that's what the public think as well.
"We've talked about how the only people who have no voice at the moment in the running of the railways are the travelling public, the passengers themselves. What you have at the moment is something that's rather ironically named the Rail Delivery Group, which is basically Network Rail and the private companies, the TOCs and the freight and they get together and they stitch up the running of the railways and they do it with our money."
He added: "Network Rail's on our books, there's huge taxpayer subsidies and investment going into the railways, but the industry want to stitch it up themselves and we're not having that any more."
Michael Roberts, director general of the Rail Delivery Group, representing rail operators and Network Rail, said: "Britain's railway has been transformed into Europe's fastest-growing and safest network through a combination of private sector innovation, competitive tendering and government policy.
"Passengers rate Britain's railway more highly than do their counterparts on any other major network in the European Union and we are committed to do even better. Government plays a major role in rail through investment and setting out what it expects Network Rail and train companies to deliver. We will continue to work with government, passenger bodies, suppliers and other key stakeholders in delivering a better deal for passengers and taxpayers."
A Conservative spokesman said: "These woolly ideas would create chaos on infrastructure that is so vital to passengers and our economy. As part of our long-term economic plan we are investing a record £38 billion in our railways. Labour are yet to set out how this funding would be affected by their intention to be both player and referee."
On Tuesday, Labour launched a bid to win animal-lovers' votes in the general election with promises of action to tackle cruelty in circuses, puppy farms and shooting estates and end culling of badgers.
Unveiling the pledges in a document entitled Labour Protecting Animals, shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle warned that Conservative victory on May 7 could lead to the repeal of the ban on hunting with dogs, while Labour would ensure it was defended.