The disastrous consequences of the railway privatisation 25 years ago are today exposed by the coincidence of the annual punishing fare rise, strikes by RMT members to keep the safety critical guards, and the bail-out of rail companies who want to abandon their contracts.
The rise of 3.4% on average in fares on 2 January was the highest in 5 years, with some up by nearly 10%. This has hit commuters hard. Real pay is falling in Britain as wage growth fails to keep up with inflation. The ONS has calculated that adjusted for inflation, UK employees are now earning £15 less a week after tax and deductions than they were in March 2008.
Action for Rail, the TUC backed campaign, has published research that shows that commuters in Britain pay up to 6 times more on rail fares than their European counterparts. Passengers are now paying more, but getting less. Trains are often cancelled, delayed, overcrowded and understaffed. Meanwhile, dividends paid to rail company shareholders was £222m in 2014/15 – a whopping increase of 21% on the previous year.
But to add to the misery for rail passengers, and workers across Britain, the Tory government is bailing out failing private rail companies with public money. The latest is that of the Virgin/Stagecoach East Coast rail franchise. This had been awarded to Virgin/Stagecoach in 2015 after a successful and “profitable” six-year period under state ownership. This was a renationalisation after National Express had handed back the keys of their franchise early.
Now another private consortium is trying to get out of its contract early because it too had overestimated its bid, and it will be at the public’s expense. Virgin/Stagecoach had been due to pay the Treasury £3.3bn over the 8 year contract, with more than £2bn in the final four years. But Virgin/Stagecoach will avoid paying most of the £2bn following what Labour Party Deputy LeaderTom Watson described as a “grubby backroom deal” under the watch of Transport minister Chris Grayling.
Not content with the evidence that private rail companies take the Treasury and the public to the cleaners, the Tory government is now pushing for the privatisation of Network Rail which deals with maintenance and infrastructure. Network Rail was established in 2002 following the 2000 Hatfield rail crash in which four people were killed and over 70 injured. A major contributory factor for the disaster was that Railtrack had lost much of its in-house engineering skill following the sale or closure of many of its engineering and maintenance functions. In 2001, Railtrack approached the government for funding to cover the cost of the crash, part of which it then used to pay a £137m dividend to its shareholders in May 2001.
On top of massive fare rises and hand-outs from government, the private companies are slashing the number of staff on trains and stations. Hundreds of station offices have closed or have reduced hours, including on London Underground. On the trains, many of the companies want to get rid of the safety critical guards or conductors and move to driver-only operation. What they are not telling passengers is that the increased risk to passengers of driver-only operation has even been recognised by the Rail Safety Standards Board. Disabled activists in particular have been adamant that such changes will make this service even less accessible to many with impared mobility. This is what has been at the heart of the RMT dispute which has been running for two years on Southern Rail.
RMT members on Northern, Merseyrail, Greater Anglia, South Western Railways and Island Line were on strike out on Monday 8 January, with further strikes planned for the Wednesday and Friday. RMT general secretary Mick Cash has said that the RMT is ready to agree deals like in Scotland and Wales that “secure the guarantee of a guard and which underpin the principles of passenger safety, security and access on our trains”.
RMT members are now on the frontline of a struggle for jobs and a safe rail service. They need our support to win this fight, which is not just about jobs but is also a political battle about a public service which meets the needs of the many and not to make profits for the few. The ideological assault from neoliberals that privatisation and the free market are better than publicly-owned services has not worked.
Recent polls show an astonishing 83% in favour of nationalising water, 77% in favour of electricity and gas and 76% in favour of rail. Labour’s manifesto for the 2017 election is a great start towards reclaiming our public assets from the privateers, and turning the tide of neoliberalism. It promises that “Labour will prioritise public service over private profit. And we will start by bringing our railways back into public ownership, as franchises expire or, in other cases, with franchise reviews or break clauses.”
Shadow Secretary of state for transport, Andy McDonald was right to say that “Commuters have repeatedly been told that higher fares are necessary to fund investment, but promised investment has been cancelled and essential works have been delayed by years”. And it’s good that some Labour members participated in the protests against fare rises organised by the RMT at 40 stations on January 2, when people returned to work.
But we have to go further by mobilising now in the communities and workplaces to help the RMT win their disputes and to create a mass movement to get rid of this weak and unpopular Tory government. We need to see support on RMT picket lines from across the trade unions and from Labour party members