Transport should be run as a public service for everyone’s benefit

Labour is right to stand for bringing our railways back into public ownership so they are run in the interests of passengers, not private profit, writes KEN LIVINGSTONE.

LABOUR rightly termed this week’s rail fare increases an affront to everyone who has had to endure years of chaos on Britain’s railways.

To coincide with the 3.2 per cent train fares hike, Labour analysis compared the costs on over 180 train routes between when the Conservatives came to power and the new prices, showing that the average commuter will now be paying an astonishing £2,980 for their season ticket, £786 more than in 2010.

In further evidence of the cost of living crisis caused by the Tories’ ideologically driven austerity policies, average fares have risen nearly three times faster than wages.

Labour’s analysis also showed that some commuters are paying over £2,850 more to travel to work than in 2010, with the highest increase on a Virgin Trains season ticket between Birmingham and London Euston which has risen by £2,874 since 2010 and now costs £10,902.

The biggest percentage increase identified was between Thame Bridge Parkway near Walsall and Nuneaton, where the cost of an annual season ticket will have risen by 54 per cent since 2010.

This is a scandal that affects all areas of the country, and in Theresa May’s own constituency the cost of an annual season ticket from Maidenhead to London Paddington has risen by £831 since 2010.

Each year the Tories try to pass the buck when it comes to these rail hikes, yet the reality is that the amount by which train companies can raise regulated fares is the responsibility of the Transport Secretary.

Chris Grayling and the government have the power to enforce this but are choosing not to.

Unlike the Tories, Labour has committed to keeping fares down and pegged to no more than a rise of CPI.

Labour also called on the government to freeze rail fares on the routes most severely affected by the timetable changes — Govia Thameslink, Arriva Rail North and First Transpennine Express.

Alongside this, a further set of figures released by Labour this week showed that overcrowding on train services has hit its worst ever levels since records began, that 2018 saw cancelled or significantly late services at their highest level in 17 years, and that this situation is set to get even worse.

Specifically, the top 10 most overcrowded peak train routes are on average 187 per cent in excess of capacity; an increase of over 25 per cent since 2011.

As Labour shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: “It’s outrageous that passengers will be hit with yet another above-inflation fares rise following such a miserable year on the railway. Making passengers pay more to travel on increasingly overcrowded trains is simply not sustainable.”

These latest figures show just what a bad deal for taxpayers the privatisation of the railways has turned out to be.

Transport should be run as a public service for everyone’s benefit. Instead, we’re spending millions every year 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.

If the government tossed aside the ideological blinkers of the Treasury and got that message, they would do themselves a great deal of good among passengers and taxpayers alike.

But, as with so many issues, the Tory development of rail and transport policy is guided by neoliberal ideology, not what works best economically and for the people of Britain.

Again and again, the privateers on our railways have taken the public sector for a ride.

In other words, we have seen the nationalisation of losses and the privatisation of profits.

The railways are perhaps the clearest demonstration that it is a fairy tale that privatisation means the private sector takes the risk as well as taking its profit. In truth, every time a privatisation of a vital public service fails, the public sector picks up the tab.

It is also inherently wasteful to run these services on privatised lines. The nature of the privatising companies is that a significant proportion of the profits of their activities has to be paid in dividends to shareholders rather than reinvested in the service. This is money wasted. A publicly owned company would be obliged to reinvest any revenues back into the transport system.

Furthermore, privatisation is justified on the grounds that the private sector is driven, through the rigour of competition, to be more efficient and more responsive to passengers’ needs.

This is a fiction in the case of a natural monopoly like a railway. Apart from the brief period of competition among bidders for contracts, there is hardly any day-to-day competition at all.

In such circumstances, it is more rational, in terms of sustaining investment, for rail services to be publicly owned.

Nor is it the case that public ownership of the rail network naturally has to involve poorer management than the private sector.

There are many publicly owned rail companies all over the world that provide services that British transport users can only envy.

The task is to build up good-quality management, including the best management from around the world, overseeing real investment that meets the needs of rail travellers.

Polls consistently show voters want change on rail policy and have done for many years.

Yet the government’s blind obsession with privatisation is putting the future of the railway at risk, just as it is so many other vital public services.

Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is fully committed to doing what’s best for passengers and taxpayers by taking the railway back into public ownership, in order to improve services and to cap fares.

Corbyn also understands clearly that an expansion in public transport capacity is essential if we are to tackle climate change, and in this area — as with others as part of a clear, coherent alternative economic strategy to austerity — that every pound invested creates jobs, improves infrastructure and boosts the economy.

Let’s make it happen in 2019.

First published by the Morning Star.