Sunday, January 13, 2008
Buy back our trains and end this chaos
This article of mine appears in today's Sunday Express.
Don't forget, if you are of like mind and believe that it's time to end Britain's Great Privatisation Rip-Off, then join the new Campaign for Public Ownership.
"Christmas Rail chaos leaves thousands stranded"...... ‘Scandal of 27% rise in electricity bills”...... “Rail fares to rise by more than twice the rate of inflation”. Just some of the depressing newspaper headlines that we have seen in the last few weeks.
Nearly thirty years after the privatisation process was started in Britain under Mrs Thatcher, its negative effects are becoming more and more apparent. Supporters of privatisation said it would reduce prices and improve services. But, at least in regard to our railways and public utilities, such as gas, water and electricity, the opposite has occurred.
Britain’s privatised railways are by far and away the most expensive in Europe, despite receiving a record £6.3bn in taxpayers subsidy last year- four times more than the state-owned British Rail received. In Britain, a next day peak-time 200 mile return journey ticket costs £202. In Belgium, just across the North Sea, it costs less than £24.
Not only are Britain’s trains the most expensive, our railway system is easily the most inefficient. Overcrowding is a major problem, because the railway companies refuse to order extra carriages unless their contracts are extended. As a consequence thousands of commuters are forced to stand every day despite paying a fortune for their season tickets.
Delays are commonplace: last year nearly one in five trains operated by First Great Western failed to arrive on time. Yet, despite the deteriorating services, prices continue to rise. First Great Western, the train company with the worst reliability record of all, hiked fares by almost 10% in the New Year, raising the price of a standard open return from Bristol to London to a staggering £137.
Some argue that better regulation of the train companies is the answer. But the basic problem is privatisation itself. Railways in Britain are no longer run as a public service, but to make as much money as possible for shareholders.
Over Christmas we saw a good example of what this means in practice. Britain was the only major country in Europe which did not operate a train service on Christmas Day or Boxing Day. The reason: the privatised railway companies did not think it was profitable enough to do so. “The train companies are not in the business of running services they know will lose money. Undoubtedly there would be some demand, but not enough to justify a commercial service”, explained a spokesman for the train companies.
For our profiteering railway firms, fleecing passengers has become an essential part of their business.
For example, South West Trains, Britain's biggest rail company, which makes profits of more than £1m a week, told its guards they will be disciplined and possibly dismissed if they show discretion to passengers who are unable to buy tickets before boarding because of long queues at stations.
The same company was accused last year of secretly programming its ticket machines not to sell cheaper GroupSave fares: the scandal coming to light when a group of Falklands war veterans on their way to London were charged more than double the cheapest fare available.
When it comes to the railways, one of the standard arguments in favour of privatisation, that it will increase competition, simply does not apply. Railways are a natural monopoly: how on earth can you have competition on the line between London and Bristol? The fact that railways will always require large levels of public subsidies was the reason why even the staunchly Thatcherite Transport Minister Nicholas Ridley decided against privatisation in the 1980s, but that didn’t stop John Major’s government pushing ahead with their ill-thought out scheme to break up our railway network.
It’s a similar story where our public utilities are concerned. While it’s true that gas and electricity prices are rising throughout the world, in Britain the impact is greater because our energy providers are all public limited companies. Like their railway counterparts, the main concern of the energy firms is their shareholders, and not householders struggling to pay rocketing fuel bills.
Announcing half-year profits of £533m last August, boosted by the delay in passing price cuts on to consumers after wholesale gas prices fell, Roger Carr, the Chairman of British Gas’ parent company Centrica, admitted that shareholder value was “top of the agenda”.
Bringing the utilities back into public ownership, would mean that there would be no shareholder dividends to pay and prices for consumers would therefore be lower.
Opponents of nationalisation claim it is ‘left-wing’ and argue that such a move would be turning the clock back. But renationalising our railways and utilities is not a matter of ideology but sheer common sense.
Britain is the only country in Europe which has a fully privatised railway. Even in Switzerland, regarded as one of the most free market countries in the world, the main railway company is publicly owned.
As anyone who has spent any time travelling on Europe’s railways will vouch, trains in the continent are not only much cheaper, but much more reliable than back home. And, you almost always get a seat.
Despite the overwhelming public support for bringing the railways back into public ownership, none of Britain’s three leading political parties currently advocates such a measure. If
If we want the interests of ordinary members of the public to come first again, then our railways and utilities should be renationalised and run, not to make as much profit as possible, but for the good of the whole community.
It’s time to end Britain’s Great Privatisation Rip-Off.