Rail reform plans risk a return to 'bad old days of Railtrack', says Labour
Labour has accused the Government of putting the nation's railways on the "slippery slope back to the bad old days of Railtrack" with plans to shake up who is in charge of rail infrastructure.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has set out proposals to strip Network Rail of its complete control of the nation's railway tracks with the publicly owned body due to share responsibility with private train operating companies.
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said the plans risk compromising safety as he repeated Labour's call for the railways to be returned to public ownership.
But Mr Grayling hit back and accused Labour of wanting to "turn the clock back".
The Government has announced that new franchises due to be awarded on the South Eastern and East Midlands routes in 2018 will have integrated operating teams overseeing both train services and infrastructure.
Meanwhile, similar arrangements will be looked at for contract renewals in the coming years.
Ministers believe a more co-ordinated approach to trains and track will help lead to more reliable services.
But Mr McDonald attacked the plans as he pointed out that Network Rail took over responsibility for infrastructure from Railtrack in 2002 after a series of fatal accidents, such as at Hatfield and Potters Bar.
Asking an urgent question in the Commons on the issue, he said: "Private companies will only engage with the Secretary of State's plans if they believe they will be able to extract yet further value from Britain's railways at the expense of taxpayers and commuters.
"Not only does this mean poor value for the public but it also risks compromising on safety.
"The last time the Tories privatised the rail tracks it resulted in a series of fatal accidents that led to the creation of Network Rail in the first place.
"Now the Secretary of State wants to start us on the slippery slope back to the bad old days of Railtrack where profit-chasing companies are entrusted with the safety-critical role of being responsible for our infrastructure.
"Has the Secretary of State not learned the lessons of Railtrack or is he simply choosing to ignore them and why does he expect it to be different this time?"
Mr McDonald said a Labour government would reverse the proposals.
"It is time for our railways to be run under public ownership, in the public interest as an integrated national asset in public hands with affordable fares for all and long-term investment in the railway network," he said.
"Sadly today's announcement will take us further away from that than ever but an incoming Labour government will redress as a matter of urgency."
Mr Grayling ridiculed Mr McDonald and said Labour wanted to return to the days of union bosses enjoying hospitality in Downing Street as he defended the plans.
The Transport Secretary said: "Well fortunately there isn't an imminent Labour government anyway and the trouble is with the party opposite they always just want to turn the clock back.
"They want to turn the clock back the days of British Rail and unions having beer and sandwiches in Number 10.
"We want to modernise the railways, we want to make them work better and the point about this is this isn't about privatisation.
"I'm not privatising Network Rail. I'm creating teams on the ground with the same incentives to work together in the interests of the passenger."
Mr Grayling insisted the shake-up will help railways "maximise their potential".
He said: "It's not rocket science. If you are running the trains over here and the tracks over there you have got two separate teams that when things go wrong wave contracts at each other rather than working together.
"Of course our railways do not maximise their potential.
"This is about forging teamwork on the ground to respond to challenges, to plan better, to deliver a better service to passengers."
The Government has also committed to looking at reopening a rail link between Oxford and Cambridge as part of its proposals.
A new organisation, separate to Network Rail and named East West Rail, will be created to secure private sector investment to design, build and operate the route.
Transport select committee chairwoman Louise Ellman said: "The joined up approach could bring benefits and has been called for on many occasions by the transport select committee, amongst others.
"But in the specific model that he's now advocating, how would safety be protected and could this be the beginning of a potentially highly expensive fragmentation of the system?"
In reply, Mr Grayling said the system was about joining up different parts of the system, rather than fragmentation.
But he also faced criticism from Labour veteran Dennis Skinner (Bolsover), who said: "Isn't this the minister that's got a bit of form?
"In a previous job he wrecked the prisons system, and now he's got the job at transport and he's about to cause havoc there as well."
In his response, Mr Grayling said he had decided not to privatise the prisons service during his time as justice secretary, adding: "I'm not an inveterate privatiser - I'm an inveterate improver of services."
Mr Grayling also said the Government was going to "look quite carefully" at how the new system would work in areas where more than one operator runs trains.
However, Mr Grayling faced criticism from across the House over his decision to block a Transport for London (TfL) bid to run suburban rail services out to Kent.
Former shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander said the Government had backed the move when Zac Goldsmith was running for London mayor, suggesting the decision was political motivated.
Tory Bob Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) said: "My constituents will regard his failure to remove the London metro services from the wholly discredited Southeastern franchise as being a complete cop-out and failure."
In reply, Mr Grayling said: "We will have the opportunity between London, my department and Kent to design an improved franchise for the future.
"What I had to decide is were the benefits set out in the mayor's business plan, which did not involve increases in capacity on his routes into London? Were the incremental improvements TfL claimed they might be able to deliver really worth putting his railway line through what would have been the biggest restructuring since the 1920s?
"My judgment is that we can achieve the benefits that TfL are arguing for through partnership, rather than massive reorganisation."
Mr Grayling has asked London Mayor Sadiq Khan to help shape the next franchise for the Southeastern lines, alongside Kent County Council.