In most normal countries and states around the world the state of the nation's railways is understandably a matter of some economic significance, concern and civic pride. Yet the current state of our nations fragmented railways is a source of national embarrassment and collective frustration, rather than boosting our economy, they are literally dragging our economy down.
Back in the 2016 National Assembly election's one of the Labour Party’s key flagship transport policies was that they would “deliver a new, not-for-profit, rail franchise from 2018”. The current (for how long is an open question!?) Incumbent is Cabinet Secretary for Transport, it was Ken Skates who actually authored that manifesto.
Yet, the current Welsh Labour Government has just handed over responsibility for our national railways to a French-Spanish, for-profit, consortium of transnational corporations – the former made a profit of €313 million in 2016. This means very basically that rail passengers in Wales will therefore no longer be subsidising rail passengers in Germany at least - as is the case under the current franchise with the German state-owned Arriva - we will be subsidising rail passengers in France instead.
The Labour in Wales government in Cardiff Bay could argue that they aren’t able to procure a publicly owned operator under the terms of the Wales Bill - they haven't. The harsh reality Labour in Wales has completely (and pretty consistently I might observe over the years) failed to ensure that the devolution settlement permitted the Welsh Government to procure a not-for-profit rail operator.
To make matters worse, they then actually choose to vote in favour of this new devolution settlement, in the full knowledge that the settlement would stop them from being able to deliver on this important transport promise. The Welsh Government simply accepted this position, and subsequently has awarded a £5 billion rail franchise to the majority-owned French rail company, Keolis, and Spanish infrastructure corporation Amey to run the Welsh network for 15 years (2033).
As has become the sad norm for this Labour in Wales Government, when faced with awkward or difficult questions in the knowledge that they have lost the intellectual and moral argument, tend to avoid, deflect and evade challenges through personal and puerile attacks - and a blatant refusal to answer questions (as personified by Carwyn Jones's behaviour at First Ministers questions).
The First Minister, however, as has been noted elsewhere is not alone when it comes to this behaviour. For one thing Labour cannot differentiate between itself and civic government - criticise them and they will attack you for undermining the institution be it in Cardiff Bay or Newport Civic Centre - but they will never directly answer the question or the criticism.
In a recent debate in the National Assembly the Transport Secretary just refused to answer a crucial question that would at least have measured the sincerity of his vision for a Welsh not-for-profit rail operator. It was possible to introduce a ‘Break Clause’ to this franchise agreement which would allow the Welsh Government to end the contract before the formal contractual end date - this was not done.
This would at least have bequeathed some future Welsh Government potential wiggle-room / freedom of movement to actually deliver a not-for-profit rail franchise if there was a change in the law made by a so minded Westminster Government. No such assurances were sought - this means the Labour in Wales Government have effectively bound the hands of not just the next administration, but the one after that, and, indeed, the one after that.
A recognisable pattern about decisions that bind the hands or limit the options of future Welsh governments may have emerged. This decision also mirrors the potential financial consequences of a commitment to the M4 Black route - which would tie up fresh acquired borrowing powers with significant loan commitments that could effectively tie the hands of future Welsh governments (Labour in Wales or otherwise) for years.
The very borrowing powers themselves may have been reluctantly conceded by Westminster (by George Osbourne) with this in mind. Now in relation to the rail franchise this could be down to a number of reasons: a lack of vision or desire from Labour in Wales, poor (if not downright questionably impartial) advice from the civil service, a lack of attention to detail, simply not being up to the business of governance with a deliberately badly designed system of devolution, or perhaps just not actually simply not being that good at what they do.
Now it can be argued that this could be down to arrogance, complacency, cynical indifference or a recognition of the realities of the current electoral system. The partially proportional electoral system can be said to have largely been designed to deliver Labour majority government.
It is more than possible that Labours duly elected representatives in Wales cannot envisage a non Labour dominated (minority or majority) government ever being elected. And at this moment in time who could say that they are not correct in this belief. If you were so minded, that the Labour minority government's that have been elected (periodically since 1999) have been a result of the electorate casting their votes despite the electoral system - which may say a great deal about some of the shrewd choices made by electors in our nation from time to time.
That said the Labour in Wales Cabinet Secretary questionably argued that this new for-profit franchise will deliver outcomes for passengers - something that very effectively undermines the Labour Party’s position at Westminster on nationalisation in its entirety. Plaid Cymru has long believed that Wales needs a publicly owned railway to ensure that dividends and profits are reinvested back into the Welsh rail services that have been starved of funding by successive Westminster governments.
Recently the great leader (JC) spoke of the need for a people's railway, yet here, the only national government the Labour Party controls, are busy celebrating their achievements by brazenly and slavishly following the Conservative Party’s privatising agenda. A case of do as I say, not as I do? We have a long way to go in our country but for certain Labour in Wales is not the answer we are looking for…