Rail Industry Focus

05.01.16

RDG must not use public money for ‘pro-privatisation publicity drives’

The Department for Transport (DfT) has insisted that public money is not being used to help private train operators make the case against renationalisation via the Rail Delivery Group (RDG).

In response to Labour fears that the cross-industry alliance was lobbying in the financial interests of operators and with a potential political bias, despite its public status, DfT permanent secretary Philip Rutnam requested that RDG develop a ‘communications protocol’ to promote neutrality.

Shadow transport secretary Lilian Greenwood MP raised the concerns in a letter in October, to which Rutnam responded in December. He said the new protocol would “balance RDG’s critically important leadership role in providing a collective voice for the rail industry with ensuring political impartiality in its communications activity”.

The group was set up in 2011, partly in response to the McNulty review on cost efficiency, to bring rail bodies together to enable short-term improvements and promote the long-term health of the railway – three years before Network Rail was reclassified as a public sector body in 2014.

Half of the RDG’s costs are now met through a Network Rail membership levy, with contributions rising to over £1.3m in 2014-15 compared to just £240,000 between 2012 and 2014 as a result of the group assuming responsibility for policy formulation and communications on behalf of the whole industry.

But Greenwood argued that RDG communications have adopted “a very strong stance” on the matter of rail ownership.  

In September, for example, it responded to Labour’s vote at its party conference in favour of renationalising the railways by claiming franchising “has been a huge success” and suggesting the industry’s “phenomenal turnaround” was only made possible due to this model.

Then in October, it highlighted how the Competition and Markets Authority rail competition review “recognised the value delivered by the partnership between the public and private sectors” in the industry.

In her letter to Rutnam, Greenwood said: “I do not dispute the core department’s duty to adopt a position on the franchising of public services, acting as it is under the direction of ministers.

“I do question whether it is appropriate to use public money to influence the political debate around rail ownership in coordination with the operating groups who have a private interest in this area of policy development.”

According to Rutnam, RDG already “regularly reviews its communications” to ensure it reflects the interests of all members, including Network Rail and franchised, freight and open access operators.

This is now listed as a commitment in the group’s protocol, published soon after Greenwood’s letter: “RDG will at all times demonstrate propriety in communications activity, ensuring it is objective in both tone and content. In purdah, it will take particular caution not to communicate in ways which could give rise to criticism of party political bias or that public resources are being used for party political purposes.”

The shadow transport secretary told the Guardian that she was grateful to Rutnam for providing “such unambiguous clarification” in light of suspicions in the industry that RDG “was displaying a political bias”.

“It was clearly inappropriate that train companies were using taxpayers’ money to fund pro-privatisation publicity drives, especially when they have a direct financial interest in maintaining the status quo,” she told the paper. “If the train companies want to make the case for rail privatisation then they should not use public funds to do so.”

Comments

Manchester Mike   05/01/2016 at 13:39

I don't trust RDG nor do I trust DfT. Nor the Tories, who are their bosses.

Railwayman Not Politician   05/01/2016 at 17:43

Whilst 'Manchester Mike' has declared his interest as being only political in this matter I am a (now retired) industry professional in operating and previously engineering (S&T) for over 40 years there is a place for both, sectorisation of BR had many benefits but splitting up Inter City wasn't progress. Network SE was good too but Regional Railway a bit of a curates egg as for the freight business, it was badly managed. As for Corbyn's plans - look forward to going back to bad service and national strikes from the union idiots who nearly closed the railways as effectively as Scargill closed the mines (that is a political view too!).

Leeroy   06/01/2016 at 08:51

Well said RnotP. There is absolutely a place for both. As much as I like Corbyn as a man, his plan for the railways would lead to an explosion of cost and deterioration of the service for passengers as we suffered during BR. I am fed up of people looking back at BR with rose-tinted glasses, the service was terrible and far more alarming than that was the awful safety record. The great challenge for the railway is in planning for the capacity demands of the future and that is where the industry needs support and perhaps some change.

Ian   08/01/2016 at 07:57

Coming from a railway family and having been involved with the railway industry for over 35 years I am saddened by some of the comments above. BR suffered from a managed decline driven by successive governments who saw little future for the railway, until it eventually dawned on them that the country would not prosper without it. The unions along with some management fought a rear guard action against this. The unions are not idiots, they may sometimes have been misguided and often portrayed badly by the media, but idiots no; they cared about the railway and those who worked on it, which more than government did at the time. I have seen both sides nationalised and privatised, without rose tinted glasses and overt political bias, and because I care I am continually frustrated, both professionally and personally by the waste, cost and inefficiency brought on by the present fragmented privatised regime. A regime in which propaganda and public back slapping saying how well we are doing hides the reality that the railway is currently succeeding despite privatisation and not because of it. All we need now are more proper railwaymen/women who understand it........

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