Lord Kinnock, former European Commissioner for Transport: “When transport doesn’t work, nothing works.”

Photo by Neil Schofield/Creative Commons

Neil Kinnock is former leader of the UK’s Labour party. After leaving Parliament in 1992, Kinnock became European Commissioner for Transport (1995-1999) and then Vice-President of the European Commission (1999-2004). He now sits in the House of Lords (since 2005).

It was during his time as Commissioner for Transport that the EU’s First Railway package – proposing the opening-up of markets, networks and services for passenger and freight – was adopted. 

We spoke to Lord Kinnock, and he explained the thinking behind the packages, what he hoped they’d achieve and why Europe’s railways were in need of drastic reform. 

We asked him, if he thought back then, that nearly 30 years on, we’d still be having the same conversation. He joked, saying, “There are changes, there are improvements, but it’s a hell of a long slog. And if somebody told me in ’95, it’s gonna take 30 years before you see significant change, I would have said, ‘yep, well, I think I might do Overseas Development’.” 

To find out why, read excerpts from this interview

What happened when you were transport commissioner and deep in the EU system and the marketisation of the rail network? 

To call it marketisation is to oversimplify a little as I’m sure you understand. Our mission — myself and the team in the DG7 — was to try to secure the revitalisation of rail transport. And it was clear that the existing models were simply leading to irreversible decline in both freight and passenger traffic; there being dramatic drops in use for the previous 25/30 years, and a million jobs had been lost in rail transport over about a quarter century. 

So consequently, what we had to try and do was to find technical, legal, commercial means of restoring life. Of revitalising European rail transport. Consequently, that’s what we set about. The use of commercial terminology is certainly relevant, because obviously, to a very substantial extent, economic considerations [were used] to guide any stimulus to rail and any increased use of rail transport. 

So, that puts marketisation into its context. Since it was clear that part of the stimulus for the increased use of rail freight and passenger transport had to come from access to new operators and a new structure of laws that would facilitate that.

What led a Labour politician to be part of the marketisation of public infrastructure like the railway?

It is because of a very long held conviction that I’ve had, which I articulated many times over the years, that when transport works, most other things work, when transport doesn’t work, nothing works. And it was a basic, practical, pragmatic commitment that made me determined to do everything I could to foster modernisation and improvement in the quality and safety of transport by all modes. 

As far as the other interests and pressures in rail, they were certainly there. But because rail, as you know, conventionally, universally for a variety of historic reasons, had become almost entirely in public ownership, and was therefore a wholly-owned subsidiary of governments with all of the political realities attendant upon that. Other interests were engaged; potential private operators and so on, but once they made representations definitely, and nobody made any secret of it to the commission, Directorate General, I saw them very, very selectively. 

Why do you think the use of the rail system had declined so much?

Simply the additional convenience — some price advantages for road haulage. And of course, over the previous half century, any major improvements in transport infrastructure have been road transport. And that was in response to two factors: the first was increasing ownership and use of car vehicles. And secondly, the greatly improved design and operation of freight vehicles, especially with the containerisation revolution.

So consequently, there were two major technological and consumer forces driving the increased use of road transport. In addition, railways — typically, though not everywhere — were under-invested. The system was dislocated, because it was a remnant of two World Wars, which intensified the desire of sovereign states to make their borders more secure, by introducing or ensuring  a disruption in rail transport between countries. 

Of course, that was counter-productive to everything that the single market was trying to achieve. But nevertheless, it was a very strong inheritance of history, both technically but also politically and mentally. 

The fortress border mentality remained across Europe for years after we tried to start the change in the revitalisation of rail transport. It ebbed, but nevertheless, it was certainly there. I’d say right up until the end of the century.

As it was, you were responsible for all transport, not just rail. Which interest groups in transport, were most actively seeking to get you to listen to their demands?

They came in different degrees and it varied deeply. For instance, in civil aviation, the pressures for change were coming mainly from new and potential operators who wanted the liberalisation of civil aviation. And of course, the creation of the single aviation market hugely facilitated that — it left us with very defensively-minded governments who were determined to maintain the protections for their  national carriers. So, you could find sovereignty at 40,000 feet, it was absurd.  

In maritime, I got massive cooperation from most of the operators and the manufacturers in shipping. Such was the cooperation we got from the industry that eventually, after a lot of argument  from governments, we secured the legislation in that sphere more quickly than in any other transport sphere. And we did it in close consultation with operators and builders so that the standards set in the European Union were very high. 

When we got to road transport, they see a common sense — the rationality of international connections meant that there wasn’t much resistance to the efforts to introduce an internationalised legal system. 

The problems had to do with some political sensitivities and some geographical realities, particularly the Alps. It meant that we could only make real progress in the movement of goods north-south and east-west by road, when we secured the single market agreement with Switzerland.  It took us two years to negotiate. But in the end, it was a very satisfactory result for the European Union, which saved our hauliers large amounts of money and facilitated much more sustainable road transport, going through the Alps, because  of the insistence of high-standards, high-quality vehicles, more sustainable vehicles, by the Swiss. With which, of course, we readily cooperated, since they were the standards, we were seeking to set anyway.

In rail, of course, there’s always been a very strong emphasis on safety. Much of that was absolutely genuine after horrific rail disasters over the previous century. But some of it became a means of sustaining political interests and national introversion in the name of safety. But actually, it didn’t really have much to do with the safe transit of goods and people.

There’s been criticism of the separation of operations from infrastructure, do you still think that was the best approach?

At the time, it was certainly a necessary approach. Because the logic is of course that you run a whole railway set managed and organised by one entity. The reality was that inside the industry, the obligations, duties, needs and investment requirements of infrastructure were actually often conflicting with the priorities and obligations of operations. There are some human and political reasons for that. There are some personality reasons for that even, but at the time, for clarity and for prudent financial management to ensure that overall priorities were met instead of distinctive and separate priorities, the separation of the two sets of interest was necessary.

Frankly, at the time, I didn’t think that it would necessarily be a permanent arrangement, simply because there is this abiding logic of responsibly running the whole kit. But in the circumstances, I recognise that the separation was necessary. 

You said it wasn’t meant to be permanent?

So far as legislation is concerned, of course, you had to establish it as a permanent prospect. In my own view, I thought the day might come when there would be sufficient advance — technically and indeed, politically and intellectually — to see the ultimate sense of running the whole thing. That it could be done according to priorities of safety and efficiency, without any regard to commercial operation or traditions or historical conveniences.But I didn’t know how far in the future that would be. So, this was a personal view, shared by several of the civil servants I worked with who were totally committed to separation in the circumstances of the time, as indeed I was.

You said that you went into this with a lot of pragmatism from your political point of departure, whereas you must have met with more ideologically sympathetic forces in Europe that wanted market for a market’s sake.

Yes, but those who came from what we would now call a neoliberal attitude towards markets never held any sway with me. I’ve always thought they were fundamentally wrong. I’ve also always thought that the ownership of national utilities — automatically monopolies really — should sensibly be held by accountable government. I mean, that’s part of my belief in democracy. So those who came as marketising crusaders — I heard them more than I listened to them.

In many countries in Europe, it’s still a few major state-owned entities that dominate. Did you imagine, in your time as Commissioner, that 20 years on, we would be in this situation?

Yeah, there’s nothing in the legislation or in the motivation behind it, or in the rules of the single market or anything that tries to make explicit or dictate the nature of ownership. People who say that the membership of the single market forbids nationalisation are talking through the back of their necks. And really, the obligation on politicians, company operators, infrastructure managers, whatever else, is efficiency, which obviously includes affordability for the customer, whether a freight customer or a passenger. And safety, which is the paramount requirement. And understand that nothing is free. If you want a high-quality transport system, then you’ve got to find the most equitable way of ensuring that it is constantly renewed and improved.

Why don’t we use the trains instead of lorries and trucks for freight?

Because over the decades, there has never been enough investment in the quality, the efficiency of freight infrastructure, freight timetables, or freight access.

That’s because after the initial miraculous surge in the availability of railways to carry freight, governments, and the capitalist system itself — and where it existed, the non-capitalist system —became really complacent. We then had two World Wars, with major recessions in between, and that meant that the government] found any way they could not to spend on rail traffic or on rail infrastructure. When governments tried to repair the damage post-war, it was, with some marvellous exceptions, patching.

And there’s never been a serious comprehensive effort to ensure that rail uses the technologies that really would increase its efficiency hugely. There’s also going to be a recognition that, in that transition to much more efficient technology, both of rolling stock and of infrastructure, somebody is going to have to pick up the bill to ensure use of rail, freight and transport at affordable prices.

Because obviously, in a period of change, a lot of money is going to have to be laid out. And it’s going to have to be recovered over decades, not over weeks. And the gap has got to be filled by a sensible attitude that says, where I started out, if transport works, most things do. If transport doesn’t work, nothing does.