Rail co-op aims to Go! next year

Backers of a co-operatively-run railway are on track with their plans. Go! Co-operative is aiming to bring a service organised on mutualised lines to connect train users to...

Heading up the initiative is project manager and Director of Operations Chris Phillimore, who has over 20 years of experience in the construction sector. He says: “The idea is to bring the ideas of the Co-op Movement to the rail industry. 

“I am not into the business of knocking existing train operators, but at the moment the big franchised operators run on a traditional business model which is subsidised by the Government, does not give tremendous value to the taxpayer and does not incentivise the operators. 

“We are hoping to bring the co-op model to the world of train operators with multi stakeholders, including financial investors, employees and user members, all playing a role.”

As well as awarding franchises to global operators such as First and Arriva, Network Rail is now encouraging “open access” bids from smaller scale enterprises who can plug gaps in the rail system. Thanks to cuts in services in recent decades — and the draconian axe of Dr Beeching in the 1960s — these are many.

And the eight-strong team behind the co-operative venture is aiming to have a new rail service linking Yeovil and Birmingham up and running by December 2011

At some point in the future, it also hopes to branch out into the business of providing light rail or bus links and car pools to enable outlying communities to access public transport.

Chris cites the recent success of independent train operators Grand Central Trains and Hull Trains as proof that small-scale transport initiatives can work. The difference is that Go! Co-operative will be the first co-operatively-run railway in the UK.

There are no big subsidies up for grabs to the smaller rail providers, so investors large and small are being urged to lend support to the proposals. Given the current economic climate Chris agrees it will be a risky business: “There are independent companies like Grand Central Trains who have identified a need and gained access to the rail network and are doing a good job. However they are still a fully shareholding business. But because they are small and not subsidised by the Government, they also have to make customer service a number one priority.” 

Go! Co-operative has already earned support from Chippenham Liberal Democrat MP Duncan Hames who raised the issue in Parliament just before the summer recess. He has urged the Department of Transport to be more flexible about access to the rail track and give its backing to the co-operative plan.        

The proposals first got off the ground around 18 months ago and Chris is hopeful that momentum for the project will grow in the coming period. He says: “At the moment there are no direct trains between Swindon and Oxford so we are filling in the gaps on a route we believe is viable 

“We have also started to explore ideas and engage with potential users and consult them on options like discounts, and share dividends. We will be very interested to see what our members think is the best return for them and the process is currently open to discussion with lots of people involved. We don’t underestimate the riskiness of it all and the application process is very technical, so it is going to take some time.” 

Under the proposals being thrashed out, refurbished rolling stock could be leased on a short-term basis to the co-operative. Chris, who is 42, has spent most of his professional life in the private sector, but is now an enthusiastic advocate of the co-operative way.

As he points out, increased use of the railways is a vital way of making society more sustainable, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving life for rural communities currently ill-served by public transport 

Connecting Communities, a report recently published by ATOC — the Association of Train Operating Companies — cited soaring demand for rail services and concerns about climate change as key reasons why the railways needed to be opened up. And the team at Go! Co-operative firmly believes it can make a success of its proposals.

Adds Chris: “It’s been an interesting personal journey and I am enjoying bringing together the talents of many different people. We’re now talking to large investors and are very keen to engage with the wider Co-operative Movement. 

“We are looking for a two-way engagement. We already have a strong contact base in Somerset and we believe we have a model which can work. 

“However we have to walk before we can run so our first goal is to achieve a single train service which we hope we can do by the end of next year.”

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