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THIS year is set to see yet another rise in Britain’s rail fares, with an increase of 3.8 per cent being introduced in March.
At this point these hikes in prices have begun to feel as much of a new year tradition as the London fireworks display or Jools Holland’s annual hootenanny, but we should never lose sight of just what a rip-off rail privatisation has been — or just how many opportunities governments have given it to fail us time after time.
Back in 1993 when the Railways Act, which sold off British Rail, was going through Parliament, then-Tory prime minister John Major claimed: “A great deal of nonsense has been talked about the privatisation of British Rail … The privatisation is not ideology but plain common sense and national self-interest.
“It is common sense that the private sector will run the railways more efficiently and it is in our national self-interest that they should do so.”
Even by the standards of speeches from ministers declaring the future benefits of neoliberal policy, this one has aged particularly badly.
From the fiasco of Railtrack, to the issues around Metronet (in charge at one point of two-thirds of the misguided public private partnership on the Tube), to the temporary nationalisation of the East Coast Mail Line, to the seemingly never-ending chaos around Southern today, railway privatisation has totally failed.
Contrary to Major’s promises, studies from think tanks such as Just Economics have found that Britain’s rail system is among the most inefficient in Europe, with commuters spending up to five times higher a proportion of their salaries compared to countries such as France and Germany.
One particularly memorable episode which highlighted just how outrageously expensive journeys here are was the case of student Jordon Cox, who found that he could actually save money on a journey from Sheffield to Essex by taking a route which involved flying and stopping off in Berlin!
As highlighted by the We Own It campaign, the average price of a train journey has increased by 23.5 per cent in real terms since privatisation — contributing in no small part to the cost-of-living crisis facing millions of people across the country.
Again and again, the privateers on our railways have taken the public sector for a ride. Time and again, we have seen the nationalisation of losses and the privatisation of profits.
Fixing the sorry state of our railways is not only key to leaving passengers better off and ensuring more enjoyable journeys, but for helping to ensure the future of our planet.
Organisations such as Friends of the Earth have emphasised the importance of investment in “better, cleaner, cheaper” public transport as part of the policy agenda we need to combat climate change — and they are absolutely right.
Private companies which will always be motivated first and foremost by profit simply cannot be trusted to deliver the kind of railways Britain is crying out for — that’s why public ownership is a must.
The proportion of the public who long for an end to the scandal of privatisation is far higher than just those who identify with socialist politics more generally: polling by BMG found that 64 per cent of voters supported nationalisation, with just 19 per cent against (and a majority of Conservatives in favour).
This widespread backing made the Blair government’s steadfast refusal to reverse the Railways Act all the more frustrating, with votes for public ownership at Labour Party conferences instantly dismissed by right-wing frontbenchers.
Transport is something which should be run as a public service for everyone’s benefit.
Instead, we’re spending millions subsidising the profits of private companies, while all too often passengers are left frustrated as their local services are removed or not properly funded — and fares increase while staffing levels are cut.
For these reasons, most of the public understands that this is the right time to plan returning the entire national rail network to public ownership.
Now is the time to put forward bold policy proposals around public ownership and to systematically expose the fact that the government’s attachment to extending privatisation is due to ideological dogma — not what is best for the people and economy of Britain.
As this year is clearly going to be another in which the legacy of privatisation leaves us all worse off, it’s crucial that the left helps to build campaigns which can bring passengers and transport unions together to ensure leading politicians can no longer keep this shambles dragging on.
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