Private enterprise has had its chance over the past 10 years to come up with an efficient way to run the railways. Although a few things have improved since John Major's ill-advised privatisation process, the cost of running the same size railway has doubled.

The vast majority of people in Britain want the railways renationalised but the Labour party does not dare.

It is trying to introduce checks and balances on the unacceptable face of capitalism so that the community gets something back for the vast sums of taxpayers' cash which is being invested in the railway and partially at least creamed for shareholders' profits.

But other people are beginning to ask if there are better ways to run the railways.

Neil Clark has helped to found a new pressure group to campaign for public ownership.

"Despite the overwhelming public support for bringing the railways back into public ownership, none of Britain's three leading political parties currently advocates such a measure," he said.

"Opponents of nationalisation claim it is left-wing and argue that such a move would be turning the clock back, but renationalising our railways and utilities is not a matter of ideology but sheer common sense.

"It's time to end Britain's great privatisation rip-off."

Labour peer Lord Tony Berkeley believes it is time to address the "democratic deficit" of Network Rail, the Government's not-for-profit creation which replaced the discredited Railtrack as owner of the nation's rail infrastructure.

Tony Berkeley will be among the speakers at a major conference ‘Social Enterprise and the Railways’ (details below) to take forward the ideas contained in the resolution by the Co-operative party conference, urging action towards giving Network Rail a co-operative/mutual structure.

Lord Berkeley explained: "We at the Rail Freight Group have often written about Network Rail’s growing risk aversion and there have recently been some more vociferous comments about its corporate structure and the role and powers of its members.

"Whatever the status of the company, private or public sector or somewhere in the grey middle, there is a democratic deficit to its governance. The board effectively appoints the 100-plus members. Of course there is an independent committee and chair but they are appointed by the board as well and the members have very little power beyond appointing the auditors and approving the appointment of non-executive directors.  They can ask questions, they receive good briefings, but all under NR control.

"Compare this with the Department of Health guidelines on Foundation Trusts, the new structure designed to give NHS trusts greater freedom to respond to the needs of their ‘customers’. 

"These require trusts seeking foundation status to have a two tier governance structure. The lower one is the trust’s board of directors, but the higher level one – the council of governors, governing board or members' council – is designed to give democratic accountability to the trust’s work. 

"This comes in two ways. Most members of the council of governors are elected by a large group of members in three constituencies - staff, patients and the public served by the trust. The balance of the council of governors is made up of representatives of stakeholder organisations, including commissioners, university partners and voluntary bodies.

"Anyone in one of the constituent groups is not only eligible but positively encouraged to become a member.  Trusts must ensure that they have a representative membership and guidelines suggest 1% of the population living in the area served. In practice Trust’s memberships range from 2000 for a small specialist Trust to 20,000 for a large acute regional centre. The members' council has between 25 and 50 governors.

"As well as being independently elected, the board of governors has much greater powers than NR members. It selects and appoints the trust chairman and non executives through a nominations committee, it must approve the appointment of the chief executive and must be involved in development of an annual strategic plan produced by the trust. 

"In short, the elected governors' board members are expected to compete in a proper election and thereafter not only represent the interests of their constituents but also ensure that the trust is behaving in accordance with the terms of its authorisation and is accountable to its community and customers.

"If this model were applied to Network Rail, the constituents might include passenger and freight train operators, customers (passengers and their representative groups as well as freight), contractors, trades unions, local authorities as well as regional representatives. There will be no difficulty in finding a large number of electors, since so many people have views about the railway! 
"Elections would be contested with the best person winning, perhaps on a platform of knowledge of the railway, safety, a regional interest and even committing to attend all BOG meetings.  It could also spawn a remuneration committee to ensure that NR staff were reimbursed in a manner commensurate with the company’s performance. Being a member of such a board with some teeth should encourage some excellent people to put themselves forward for election.

"A board of governors on these lines, with perhaps 40 people elected by the constituents rather than 118 appointed by Network Rail, would undoubtedly reduce the democratic deficit and increase accountability without causing a major upset in the railway structure. It would have views on Network Rail’s business plan and whether it was giving value for money to its customers, on its long term plans for renewals or enhancements, and on its general management performance.

"Now is the time to start this process. Things may be better than in the dying days of Railtrack but they are not perfect.  We should seek improvements to the democratic deficit that is clearly Network Rail at the moment.  One day there will be a serious crisis – there always is.  An elected structure comprising all the stakeholders of our railway should be a much stronger entity to ride a storm and help the company get back ‘on to line’.

"The Office of Rail Regulation is ‘guardian’ of this structure as, being in the private sector. The Department for Transport will have nothing to do with it apart from contribute some funding if the ORR says it is justified.  We will be opening discussion with the ORR on this soon and hope that others will join the process."


Tony Berkeley will be among the speakers at the Social Enterprise and the Railways conference, organised by the South-west regional council of the Co-operative Party and sponsored by the Midcounties (South) Co-operative Party Council.

Other speakers will include author Christian Wolmar, Peter Hunt, chief executive of Mutuo, and MP Anne Snelgrove who is an aide to Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly.

The conference will take place at the Steam museum in Swindon on Saturday 8 March 2008, from 10.30 - 16.00. A booking fee of £5 will be charged which will go to the Railway Children charity.

Further information from Tim Pearce, t.pearce at Tel: 079 7042 1590.

For bookings please send a cheque for £5 per head made out to Railway Children, Co-op Conference, c/o Bath CLP, Century House, 4 Pierrepoint Street, Bath BA1 1LE