Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Lucky Little Country



Here's my piece from the New Statesman, contrasting Belgium's efficient, affordable and fit-for-purpose publicly owned public transport system, with Britain's inefficient, hideously expensive and not fit-for-purpose privatised one. And for Britain's long-suffering, ripped-off train commuters, things are going to get even worse. Yet, despite the obvious superiority of the Belgian system, neoliberal fanatics are attempting to force the rest of Europe to adopt the flawed British model!


Now that we have a high-speed rail link to Brussels, maybe Britain's transport chiefs could take a look at the rest of the Belgian rail network. For, when it comes to public transport, it's the much-derided Belgians who have the last laugh on us Brits.

Like Britain, Belgium is small and densely populated. But, unlike Britain, it has a co-ordinated, fit-for-purpose, publicly owned public transport system. Belgian Railways is the cheapest network in western Europe, with ticket prices that should make train travellers in the UK green with envy. In Britain, a next-day, peak-time return ticket from Manchester to London (200 miles) costs just over £200. In Belgium, the cost of a similar journey is less than £24.

Not only are Belgian fares cheaper, the ticketing system is simpler. In Britain, there are more than 200 types of railway ticket, depending on dates, time of travel and time of booking. In Belgium, price is determined by distance - a system despised by free-market fundamentalists. Prices don't go up in the rush hour: Belgian Railways simply puts on more trains and carriages. It has no problem meeting capacity because it owns its own rolling stock.

What a contrast to Britain, where commuters on the nation's most overcrowded routes are told they will have to wait three years for an end to their ordeal, because the train companies refuse to order new carriages until their contracts are extended.
A publicly owned transport system also means that the various modes - train, bus, tram - can be co-ordinated. In Ghent, you get off a train and a tram is waiting to take you to the city centre (for E1.50, the set fare on all Belgium's trams and buses). In Britain, despite the government's exhortations, the system remains fragmented.

Anyone who has travelled on both the British and the Belgian systems knows which is better. Yet, incredibly, the Belgian model is under threat from neoliberals in the EU. In the name of "competition", they are calling for the end of national rail monopolies and for transport to be opened to foreign companies.

In October, after intense pressure from corporate lobbyists, the European Parliament voted for the liberalisation of all international rail services from 2010, and for the European Commission to report no later than 2012 on the liberalisation of domestic rail services.

This pressure is coming from Britain; opposition is led by France and Belgium. In other words, we are calling for the rest of Europe to follow our flawed model, dreamt up by the free-market ideologues of the Adam Smith Institute.

On my last trip to Belgium, I travelled by train from Oxford to Waterloo International. At Oxford Station the ticket office was closed, and the departure board was not operating. As a train pulled into Platform 1, bewildered passengers asked each other if they knew where it was going.

A few hours later I was in the Gare du Midi, Brussels, from where an efficient and cheap underground system took me directly into the centre of the city.

Belgium may be only a short distance across the North Sea, but as far as public transport is concerned, it's a different world.

6 comments:

Martin Meenagh said...

I couldn't agree more. The cost of train journeys in the south of england, and the equivalent service, is a subject of real anger in the mornings as far as I can tell. Isn't it odd that when the truck industry and the oil lobby conspire to shut off the petrol for supermarkets, as in 2000, the government immediately responds to extralegal protest, but when a much better public option is squeezed dry by rail companies and people are fed rubbish excuses about health and safety and the length of platforms to preclude longer trains, there is nothing that can be done?

Neil Clark said...

Absolutely. The biggest scandal of all is that the neoliberals, having wrecked British public transport are now trying to wreck the public transport of continental Europe. Anyone who travels on public transport in Britain and then travels on it in continental Europe knows which system works best, yet Britain, and a few neoliberal loons in the European Commission, are trying to force the 'liberalised' model on the rest of Europe.

Anonymous said...

So what do we do about it? It's enough to make you vote Labour. Oh yeah, damn, we did.

So who to vote for Neil? There is no real social democratic opposition is there? Has the change got to come from within the labour party?

Jakar

Neil Clark said...

So who to vote for, Jakar? Well certainly not Labour; the fact that John McDonnell couldn't even muster enough MPs to support his leadership bid- and the shameful deselection of the anti-war and anti-neoliberal MP Bob Wareing in Liverpool, West Derby in order to make way for another pro-war Nu Labour cipher shows that the party really is over. (If the Labour Party was really honest they would call themselves the Capital Party, because it's capital- and not 'labour', who they represent)
There is an urgent need for a new political realignment to unite all those (with the exception of fascists) who oppose the neoliberal/neo-conservative agenda. It's time the country was ruled for the benefit of the majority of the people, not for a tiny clique of warmongering
profiteers, privateers and bankers.
I'll be posting more on what I think needs to be done, in the weeks and months ahead. But the fact that neither of our two major political parties is calling for the return to the railways to the public sector, despite the overwhelming public support for such a move, shows us how powerful this tiny clique of warmongering profiteers, privateers and bankers is. As Mark Almond writes in today's Guardian: let's stop worrying about democracy in Russia and instead let's try to get some established here at home.

Anonymous said...

Dear Neil,

I like your writings. But pointing on problems around the world will not help even if you find the way to solve them, because problems appear faster than you can write about them;-).

How about preventing the problems by the system that could do it? I did exactly that here: sarovic.com. The pages define a completely new system that will change the world and make it a wonderful place to be. The idea is presented through numerous articles from one sentence long up to few pages, through a very funny story "Heaven", and through the book "Humanism - A Philosophic-Ethical-Political-Economic Study of the Development of the Society.

Please visit my web site. I believe it will be very interesting to you. I have problem to get attention. Maybe we can cooperate somehow.

Best wishes,

Aleksandar Sarovic

Anonymous said...

Dear Neil,

I like your writings. But pointing on problems around the world will not help even if you find the way to solve them, because problems appear faster than you can write about them;-).

How about preventing the problems by the system that could do it? I did exactly that here www.sarovic.com. The pages define a completely new system that will change the world and make it a wonderful place to be. The idea is presented through numerous articles from one sentence long up to few pages, through a very funny story "Heaven", and through the book "Humanism - A Philosophic-Ethical-Political-Economic Study of the Development of the Society.

Please visit my web site. I believe it will be very interesting to you. I have problem to get attention. Maybe we can cooperate somehow.

Best wishes,

Aleksandar Sarovic
www.sarovic.com