UK Politics

Rail travel is a moral issue, ex-minister Adonis says

Lord Adonis
Image caption Lord Adonis is also a former Labour schools minister

Rail travel is "a moral issue" and the government must do more to protect customers, a former Labour transport secretary has said.

Lord Adonis told a meeting at the Labour conference that train companies must not be allowed to degrade services once they had taken on a franchise.

He also defended the £17bn high-speed line planned from London to Birmingham.

He said HS2 was vital "for the good of the country" and the alternative was "a classic British patch and mend".

Earlier this month, Conservative Transport Secretary Philip Hammond told a Commons committee that soaring fares had made Britain's railways "a rich man's toy".

'Dreadful things'

Lord Adonis, who was transport secretary under Gordon Brown, told a fringe event at the Labour conference in Liverpool that because rail operators were effectively regional monopolies, it was up to ministers to keep them in line.

"The government should be speaking to the train companies and saying this is basically a moral issue," he said.

"You can't worsen the service for the public after you have taken on these franchises."

In 2009, the government was forced to take over the running of the East Coast mainline from operator National Express.

Lord Adonis told the IPPR event on Monday that when the franchise was "in the end game", the head of National Express suggested doing "dreadful things" to save money.

"He was threatening to take all of the catering off the East Coast mainline. I said, 'Surely you can't do that,' and my officials said, 'Yes, secretary of state, he can do that, catering isn't specified in the franchise.'"

The peer also cited the current example of off peak fares, saying that "because of very lax negotiation on the part of the government, off peak is defined as only about five hours a day" and train companies were trying to reduce that further.

"We need a much more active, much more hands-on, much more professional state acting on behalf of the consumer and profound public interest," he said.

'Travelling incognito'

On HS2 - which is hugely controversial because of its costs and the impact it will have on the countryside along the route - Lord Adonis said it was one of the "great projects" devised by the Labour government.

"It's very important that we don't flinch from HS2. It needs to be done for the good of the country," he said.

"It we don't do it we'll end up with a classic British patch and mend."

But he admitted that as the man behind the project it had made him unpopular in certain parts of the country.

"I am at the moment having to travel incognito through the Chilterns," he said.