NEIL CLARK examines how MPs’ noisy ‘outrage’ at rail firm ticketing swindles is never acted on
PRIVATISED companies are exposed for sharp practices. A “furious” government minister says that what they’re doing is wrong and threatens to “take action.” Nothing happens. If that sequence of events sounds familiar then its no surprise. It’s what’s been occurring on a regular basis since the era of privatisation rip-offs began in 1979.
The latest example is the “revelation” that rail company First Great Western has been hiding the cheapest fares from its customers at its booking offices. Newspapers published emails from the company to its customers which stated that its staff were under no obligation to inform passengers about the best fares — it was up to passengers to find them for themselves.
Straight on cue, Rail Minister Claire Perry expressed her outrage.
“Train companies must get better at giving their customers information about ticket options in a straightforward way. I will not hesitate to hold operators to account if they do not take this issue seriously,” the minister said.
Do we think that operators will be held “to account” by the government? I’d put the odds of it happening at around 50-1 at least. Because talking tough but doing absolutely nothing to tackle sharp practices by privatised companies has been the position of successive government ministers.
Last October, for instance, the Daily Telegraph reported on the great ticket machine rip-off. The newspaper’s investigation found that self-service machines — used to purchase around a quarter of all rail tickets offered “wildly different fares.” On one occasion a fare in one self-service machine at Leeds station was £125.30 more than a ticket for the same journey on another machine.
The Telegraph declared: “The investigation also found that many machines promote expensive fares, bury cheaper options and do not apply discounts for groups and families.” But this wasn’t the first time the issue of rip-off ticket machines had surfaced.
On June 23 2011 Labour MP Katy Clark asked of then transport minister Theresa Villiers: “Is she aware of research by Passenger Focus that shows that people who buy their tickets from ticket machines pay far more expensive fares than if they used the staffed ticket offices?”
Villiers’s response was: “The industry needs to do a lot better on its ticket machines and to ensure that passengers are fully informed about the ticket choices available. We will continue to challenge the industry to do that.”
The “challenge” to the industry from the government was so strong that it wasn’t until March 2015, almost four years later, that a small step was taken — the attachment to machines of a small label to say that cheaper fares might be available at ticket offices. Ticket offices, where, as we’ve already learnt, companies aren’t under any legal obligation to inform passengers about the cheapest fares if they don‘t ask for them.
Now the very latest pledge for government “action” on the railways is a “renewed” pledge by Claire Perry to tackle overcrowding on trains. This comes after the publication of the latest report on overcrowding, which shows — surprise surprise — that “the overall level of crowding across the 11 cities included in the statistics has increased.” The report found that 139,000 passengers were standing at trains’ busiest points of arrival in London in the morning peak and that
59 per cent of trains had passengers standing. All this of course, on train services which have the most expensive fares in Europe.
In 2009, when in opposition, the Tories pledged to tackle overcrowding. “After 12 years of disappointment under a Labour government, people know the only way to see Britain’s railways improve is through a change of government,” declared Villiers.
Well, if anyone did believe that, they were to be cruelly disappointed.
In October 2014, after the Tories had been in power for almost four and a half years, Rail Minister Claire Perry said it was “unacceptable” that people were not able to board commuter trains because they were full and said that passengers should not have to stand more than 20 minutes in a journey.
Not only has overcrowding got worse under the Tories but rail fares have rocketed too, rising by almost 25 per cent since 2010 — more than twice as fast as wages. But still the empty pledges arrive from ministers to make things better. The truth is that politicians committed to a flawed neoliberal model can’t improve things as our railways are run for the benefit of capital and not for passengers.
The stark reality is that companies whose aim is profit maximisation and which have a monopoly on the services they provide are not going to go out of their way to help customers find the best deals — they’re out to fleece us for every penny that they can get.
It’s also clear that profit-maximising companies who have to pay rolling stock companies to lease extra railway carriages will prefer to have people standing rather than ensure that everyone gets a seat — which would cost them more money. My uncle, who commuted from Sussex to London for many years, told me how following the destruction of British Rail (BR) the number of carriages on his train was dramatically cut. In the days of the much-maligned BR he always got a seat. Following privatisation, he regularly had to stand. To add insult to injury, his season ticket also shot up in price.
Politicians feign outrage at practices which are the logical consequence of privatising our railways and putting private profits before the needs of rail travellers, who simply want reasonable fares, reliable services and the comfort of a seat. Now though, a politician has come forward who does promise real change.
Jeremy Corbyn as has been said before, is the “Emperor’s New Clothes” candidate. On a wide range of issues he has stated obvious truths that others have been too scared of voicing for fear of being labelled “extreme” by Establishment gatekeepers who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
If Corbyn becomes Labour leader today then, at long last, there is light at the end of the tunnel for Britain’s long-suffering rail passengers. An unequivocal commitment to renationalise the railways in 2020 would greatly increase pressure on the Tories — who up to now (unlike rail passengers) have had a free pass on this issue because of Labour’s failure to reject the privatised model. Between 60-70 per cent of the public support Corbyn’s stance on the railways — and a lot of those will be people who voted Tory in May and who might have plumped for Labour had the party been bolder on the railways.
Of course, if my fellow Morning Star columnist wins, the Blairite faction of the party will do all they can to sabotage his plans to bring back public ownership. In fact, whoever is the leader, Labour’s hard-right will continue with their ludicrous claims that common sense policies supported by a clear majority of the electorate are a “vote-loser.” For them, as for the Tories, we’re just expected to carry on being “outraged” by the railway rip-offs we read about in the newspapers and assuaged by empty neoliberal pledges to hold profiteering private operators “to account.”
And we’re supposed to forget that we’ve been hearing these pledges for the past 20 years.
• Neil Clark is the director of the Campaign for Public Ownership. Follow the campaign on Twitter @PublicOwnership. You can follow Neil Clark @NeilClark66.