Franchising has failed. That hard truth is as perceptible as the thin seating on some of the new trains introduced to Britain’s privatised rolling stock.
I’m an outspoken Labour MP, so if you won’t take my word for it, how about those of the National Audit Office, who, in January this year, concluded that:
“High levels of disruption for passengers mean that, to date, the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern rail franchise has not delivered value for money.”
The NAO’s report continues:
“Since Govia Thameslink Railway Ltd started operating the full franchise in July 2015, around 146,000 services (7.7% of planned services) have either been cancelled or have been delayed by over 30 minutes.”
John Major’s privatisation of the rail network sold off Britain’s infrastructure with very little to show for it. Indeed, the situation is a miserable one, with franchises continuing to collect billions in public subsidies while companies like East Coast Mainline expected to fall short of a promised £2 billion return to the government. They have us over a barrel, since, according to Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, there’s “no viable legal mechanism” to make East Coast pay the full amount.
But Mr Grayling’s efforts to cast the failings of privatisation as an issue of worker militancy just will not wash. The Gibb report into Southern Rail highlights the failure of the franchise model to invest in infrastructure as well as failing to create the efficiencies necessary to improve Britain’s worst-performing network.
Instead, Southern have taken on a fight with train guards in a dangerous attempt to mask the company’s inadequacy and deny its responsibility. It seems Southern could not care less about the fact that hate crimes and sexual offences on our railways have increased, with the number of sexual offences doubling since 2013.
Such a ridiculous race to the bottom calls for sensible politicians and voters to reconsider the laissez faire approach. Indeed, the rail service is a suitable metaphor for Britain’s woes. It is one example of the impact neoliberalism has had on our economy. No wonder the successful Brexit campaign stood on the slogan of “taking back control.”
Taking back control of our railways is exactly what we must do. While the sluggish service rusts, privatised companies have saw fit to put up fares this year by 3.6 per cent. British rail has become a luxury for the few – but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Real control can come from public ownership; Labour’s approach will manage automation on the railways responsibly and provide a train upgrade that the country needs.
Public ownership of the train operating companies is a popular Labour Party policy, and you can see why. While nom-dom Richard Branson flies around in helicopters and takes private jet to his own island, the rest of us just want a decent way to get to work.
Seen from that perspective, taking back control of our rail network is not radical; it’s both fair and plain common sense.
A version of this article appeared previously in Politics First magazine