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UK's Labour outlines plan to renationalise railways within 5 years

(This April 24 story has been refiled to say that Arriva is being sold to I Squared, not owned by I Squared, in paragraph 10)

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's opposition Labour Party said it planned to renationalise the country's rail network within five years without paying compensation to private operators as it set out its plans to fix the troubled railway system.

Britain's train services were privatised in the 1990s but several operators have been renationalised in recent years, some of them losing their franchises after underperforming.

Labour wants to set up a publicly owned Great British Railways which will inherit passenger rail contracts currently held by private firms as they expire, a process it expects to be completed within its first term in office.

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The party leads the governing Conservative Party by around 20 percentage points in opinion polls with a national election expected later this year.

"Labour will deliver the biggest overhaul to our railways in a generation," Labour transport policy chief Louise Haigh said ahead of a speech on Thursday setting out the plans.

Battered by the COVID-19 pandemic and more recently disrupted by industrial unrest, the deteriorating quality of key services has drawn widespread criticism.

Nearly 70% of voters support bringing train operators back into public ownership permanently, a poll conducted this month by polling firm YouGov showed. Fewer than 10% opposed it.

NO SURPRISE

In the 2010s, Britain had several listed transport groups operating rail contracts, but they have either been taken private, such as Go Ahead Group, or exited the sector, such as National Express now Mobico, leaving FirstGroup the only quoted stock.

Shares in FirstGroup, which runs buses and also has contracts for rail services in western England, to Edinburgh from London, and some commuter services in London, fell 2% in early deals. Analysts said FirstGroup's stock does not price in any future rail contracts, hence the small move.

Among the other companies running rail contracts in Britain are Trenitalia which operates the c2c line east of London and Arriva Group, which is being sold to private equity firm I Squared, and they are unlikely to be surprised that their British rail contracts would not be renewed.

"This is not a surprise. Labour have been talking about this for absolutely ages," said Liberum analyst Gerald Khoo. "The only thing that's slightly more tangible is they're much closer to getting into power."

Train operators in Britain will still have a chance to operate some lines as Transport For London outsources some of its connections, such as the Overground which is operated by Arriva.

SUNAK'S PLAN

The current government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunakhas also proposed establishing a new Great British Railways (GBR), company but with a different role.

The government's proposals would group responsibility for rail infrastructure and services under GBR while maintaining a franchise system, giving it the role of contracting out passenger services to private firms.

The government has highlighted the need for private sector involvement to boost efficiency in the network after the coronavirus pandemic reduced commuting by passengers.

Latest statistics show that cancellations in the last three months of 2023 were at their highest level since records began in 2018 although industrial action by staff was a factor behind some of the problems.

Labour said the increases in cancellations and rail fares showed the current system - with four rail operators already managed by the government - had failed.

It said it planned to establish a Passenger Standards Authority to hold GBR accountable for its performance and passengers would be given price guarantees for future fares.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout, additional reporting by Sarah Young; Editing by William Schomberg, Alex Richardson and Daniel Wallis)