Full Steam Ahead

Full steam ahead for first co-operatively owned rail service

Formal application submitted to run a co-operatively owned train services in Somerset and Wiltshire.

An ambitious move to launch the UK’s first co-operatively managed rail service has moved a step closer with the submission of a formal application by Go-op to run services in the south west of England.

Go-op has applied to the Office of Rail and Road to run services between Taunton and Westbury, starting in 2023. This will see 10 departures a day, improving the service levels in growing market towns such as Frome and Melksham.

“Go-op has taken several years of careful research and planning to ensure that our plan is both compliant with the highest standards of rail operation, and commercially viable too,” said Alex Lawrie, Vice Chair at Go-op.

“As a co-operative, not only can Go-op improve transport links for some of our important local growing towns but we could help reduce CO2 emissions by 2.7 million kilogrammes annually if people move their journeys to our railway.”

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Go-op is a superb example of co-operative ambition and innovation – and demonstrates that we’re not limited by sector or industry. We’re witnessing serious turmoil across train services at the moment with pay disputes and strikes. Passengers are stuck in the middle, with no voice or influence on services they fund through their own hard-earned pay. As Go-op owners, rail users and other stakeholders will have that ownership and control to shape their own future. That’s so important.

– Rose Marley, CEO, Co-operatives UK

Independent experts estimate that as many as 40% of passengers would be new to the rail network and this equates to some 17.5 million seat miles each year, with a significant number likely to shift from travelling by car. A Go-op study of productivity benefits* shows up to £37.5 million of productivity gains could result for towns in the south west served by Go-op.

Go-op services between Taunton and Westbury will  provide much needed connections for services to and from Yeovil, Southampton and Exeter. In addition, half will be extended to Swindon, and others up the Somerset coast to Weston Super Mare.

As a co-op, members of the public and Go-op employees will own and manage the organisation, with train operation and day to day running being professionally run, just like any other train business. But unlike other train operating companies, Go-op will be owned by passengers and the local community – its shareholders are members with equal rights regardless of how large or small their investment is.

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A debate about private versus nationalised rail system misses out the benefits that a co-operatively owned train business can bring.

– Alex Lawrie, Vice Chair, Go-op

Go-op does not distribute profits to private owners – after paying all expenses (including a fair rate of interest to investors) all remaining profits will be devoted to further improvements to public transport. With a target of £1.1 million, Go-op is to launch a funding round focusing on ethically. minded investors who would like to see a sustainable community-owned railway and good potential returns on their investment.

Following an industry consultation, Wiltshire Council, Somerset Council, Cross Country Trains and the DfT have all expressed support for the proposal. GWR and Network Rail have recently convened a working group to study ways in which the timetable in the Westbury area could be optimised to deliver improved customer benefit and network performance.

Go-op was been invited to take part and introduce its proposed timetable so that any new services that do gain regulatory approval will be fully integrated into the new timetable and thoroughly tested for any adverse impacts on existing operations. Go-op’s plan includes forming a new charitable community co-op, Go-op Learn, to train apprentice train drivers, community energy specialists and new transport planning technicians, bringing new talent and innovation to a struggling industry and protecting communities for the future.

Apprentices will earn whilst they learn, qualifying to work for the UK’s first community-owned train company and elsewhere in the sector. “A debate about private versus nationalised rail system misses out the benefits that a cooperatively owned train business can bring,” said Alex. “We are confident that we can benefit by bringing together the community and worker perspectives to create a sound commercial operating model.”

*The settlements that Go-op is bringing significant ‘agglomeration benefits’ to include Yeovil, Castle Cary, Frome, Melksham, Chippenham and Taunton itself. The combined populations are about 200,000 people, of whom perhaps 50,000 are or might be employed in local businesses. Productivity gains of just 2.5% applied to an average wage could reasonably be quantified as worth £37.5 million each year.

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