Bring our railways back to the people

Jeremy Corbyn’s policy of a people’s railway can be a popular alternative for Labour, writes Ken Livingstone.

THE current and ongoing issues with Southern Rail should be another nail in the coffin of the failed experiment that has been the privatisation of our railways.

It is just the latest in a series of examples that illustrate just what a bad deal for taxpayers the privatisation of the railways has turned out to be, from the fiasco of Railtrack — which brought the national rail network to the brink of collapse in 2002 — to the issues around Metronet — in charge at one point of two-thirds of the misguided public private partnership (PPP) on the Tube — to the temporary nationalisation of the East Coast line, to the chaos around Southern today.

Our railway network is now the most expensive in Europe, meaning that both taxpayers and passengers get a bad deal.

Transport is something which 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 whilst 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.

Evidence backs this up. Indeed, just a few years ago East Coast — having failed drastically in private train operators’ hands — was run more successfully, more efficiently and with higher passenger satisfaction levels as a public service. It also returned record amounts of money back to the government compared to the previous private operator — that is until the Tories re-privatised it of course!

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. The situation with our railways is another indication of the disconnect between voters and Westminster politics that we must repair.

Again and again, the privateers on our railways have taken the public sector for a ride. In other words, time and again, we have seen the nationalisation of losses and the privatisation of profits.

The railways is 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. This culture of parts of the private sector fleecing the taxpayer has to stop.

But the real issue is that it is 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 railway 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 — no one is going to build a rival railway line and poach passengers from the private franchisee. They are under no pressure from any competition at all. In such circumstances, it is more rational, and makes more sense 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.

Ultimately, the rail network would be more rationally run in the public sector and that is why it was so encouraging to see Jeremy Corbyn recently use the opportunity of the announcement of the extent of the next round of rail fares on “Transport Tuesday” to unveil a transport strategy that will transform Britain’s public transport into an integrated, green, efficient and affordable system.

Jeremy 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.

As part of this clear strategy for transport, Jeremy has made it clear that under a Labour government the railways will be taken back into public ownership as franchises expire. This policy is particularly strong as a political message — delivering better run transport and estimates that regulated fares could decrease by up to 10 per cent and highlights the commitment to increase public ownership and democratic control over our services and in our economy.

As Jeremy himself put it as he launched the policy: “Public ownership of our railways is needed now to fix the transport nightmare we are currently faced with, and we know there is overwhelming support among the British public for a people’s railway.”

The last general election showed clearly that more than anything Labour needs a clear story to tell and the public need to understand us better. We also need to find ways to connect to them directly and Jeremy’s policy in this area is one such example.

Polls consistently show voters want change on rail policy — a November 2013 YouGov poll for example found 73 per cent of Ukip voters back publicly owned rail. It is also a key part of making progress in Scotland — a November 2014 Survation poll found 27 per cent of SNP voters would be more likely to vote Labour if we committed to publicly owned Scottish rail services.

This is just one issue where Jeremy Corbyn has connected with the public and why he is the best candidate to take us forward to win the next general election.

He stands for clear, understandable positions and helps Labour to speak more directly to voters we have lost — including to those who have switched to the SNP, to Ukip and to those more generally who believe we have lost our way.

With his vision and policies for the railways — as with the NHS and many other issues as part of his 10 pledges to rebuild and transform Britain — Jeremy is again showing he is the leader who will make Labour a winning party once more.

First published in the Morning Star