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Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Austrian Way

This column of mine appears in The Morning Star.

The Austrian Way

I SPENT this Christmas in Austria, a country which, thankfully, has been wise enough not to follow the British path and privatise its entire economy.

In Austria, not only are the railways still in public ownership but prices are determined by a simple distance-based system, with the price you pay determined by the number of kilometres you travel.

At rush hour, instead of fares rising to price people off the trains, Austrian State Railways simply lays on more trains with more carriages.

Even at the busiest times, travellers always get a seat, as they do in other European countries which operate under the same model.

Compare this to what happens in Britain, where commuters, having forked out a fortune for their season tickets, face years of overcrowding, because the train companies prefer to ram people like sardines into trains rather than lease extra carriages from the rolling stock companies.

It was disclosed recently that overcrowding on Britain's trains was so bad that commuters were being allocated less space than the EU minimum for transporting farm animals.

The late "One Nation" Tory Sir Ian Gilmour, a staunch critic of privatisation, called his party's proposal to privatise the railways "crazy." He was putting it mildly.

Gatwick - a living nightmare.

It used to be said that the most stressful part of flying was the flight itself. But flying is now a doddle. The real stress comes with having to deal with a privatised British airport.

On my way to Austria, I experienced the living nightmare that is Gatwick.
Herded like sheep, my family, together with thousands of other weary passengers, were told that we had to queue outside due to the lack of space inside the terminal.
And just why is there so little space inside the terminal? Because Britain's privatised airports are first and foremost shopping malls from where you can also fly, as opposed to being places to fly from with one or two shops.

The difference between the BAA-owned airports and those still in public ownership could not be more different.

While Britain's privately owned airports are widely condemned as an international disgrace, municipally owned Manchester airport is regularly voted one of the world's favourite airports by its users.

For privatisation zealots, that is, of course, unwelcome news.

Tory MP Graham Brady acknowledges that Manchester airport is a "magnificent gateway" to northern England, but still calls for its privatisation.

"Next door to my constituency, there is a thriving modern plc worth £3 billion which remains in the public sector without anyone batting an eyelid," he complains. Brady lambasts Manchester airport's "anachronistic ownership structure" as "a monument to old-fashioned municipal socialism."

As opposed of course to being a monument to old-fashioned Thatcherite dogma, like Gatwick.

Rail companies provide lousy new year tradition.

IN Germany, a long-standing new year tradition is the television screening of the classic 1960s comedy sketch Dinner For One, starring Freddie Frinton as an inebriated butler.

In privatised, neoliberal Britain, we have a different and less humorous new year custom - the announcement of above-inflation price rises by Britain's profiteering train companies.

This week, fares on Britain's railways, already by far and away the most expensive in Europe, have gone up by average of 7 per cent, with some season ticket prices rising by as much as 11 per cent.

Train companies say that the increases are necessary to pay for "much-needed investment."

If you believe that one, then I'm sure that you also believe that Israel is a force for peace in the world, that Tony Blair is a man who never tells lies and that Father Christmas is a real, living person.

The truth is that the companies are raising fares to boost their already obscenely high level of profits and to pay even higher dividends to their shareholders.
In its most recent half-year figures, the Go-Ahead Group made a pre-tax profit of £58 million, while Stagecoach recorded a £105 million surplus.

Arriva made £66 million, First Group £54 million and National Express £47 million.
These profits have been at the expense of Britain's long-suffering commuters and taxpayers who pay around four times more in subsidy to the private rail operators than they did to the much-maligned British Rail.

Only when the railways are bought back into full public ownership and run once more for the benefit of the travelling public and not wealthy shareholders will Britain's great train robbery come to an end.


Great Sage of Wokingham

REMEMBER John Redwood - the wild-eyed free-market fanatic who once challenged John Major for leadership of the Conservative Party?

On his blog, the Great Sage of Wokingham reflects on why Britain's trains are so expensive.

"There is one simple reason why train fares are so high and rising so fast - the costs of train travel are too high and rising too fast," he opines. Sorry, John, but the simple reason why train fares are so high and rising fast is because our trains are operated by profiteering plcs.

Nowhere in his article does Redwood mention the fact that Britain's railways, unlike those in Europe, are in private ownership.

Writing an article on why Britain's trains are so expensive without mentioning their ownership structure is as ridiculous, and dishonest, as writing an account of World War II without mentioning Adolf Hitler.


It's time for nationalisation

THE Campaign for Public Ownership's new website will be up and running very shortly, with details of our latest campaigns and how you can get involved.

Let's make 2009 the year that nationalisation is put firmly back onto the political agenda, not as an emergency measure to bail out failing banks and building societies but as an integral part of economic policy.


TBRRob said...

It's very difficult to say the train companies are 'private entities' in a free market sense.

It's far more of a corporatist arrangement between companies and state.

I agree that something needs to change. But it's not as simple as saying that they don't work properly because they are plcs. The state plays a big role in this.

DBC Reed said...

Sir Ian Gilmour also wrote one of the most withering condemnations of Heathrow expansion entitled the Horrors of Heathrow,which is still on the Net.Apparently the whole development of Heathrow depended on civil servants lying through their teeth during the war that the site was needed for military purposes to over-ride planning considerations .(Even then London had a Green Belt.)
One thing I don't understand is how compulsory purchase can be invoked to chuck people out of their houses when BAA is not a public interest entity but is owned by a private Spanish firm.

Chas Newkey-Burden said...

How strange to learn you love Austria! Not!

Deucaon said...

Why should everyone be taxed for a service only a handful of people use?

Charlie Marks said...

TBRRob - the profits are not necessarily reinvested in the enterprise, as is the case with the retained financial surplus of a non-profit organisation. In other words, passengers and staff are paying for the dividend issued to shareholders. We need a rail network which is focused upon providing safe, affordable travel - not maximizing private profits.

Great article Neil.

Neil Clark said...

charlie: absolutely.
DBC Reed: quite. it is an absolute scandal.
chas: yes, it is certainly not surprising that I admire a country that still hase a publicly owned transport system and which has had socialist/social democratic led governments for the majority of the past forty years. oh, sorry, as a fanatical Zionist, you are trying to make out that anyone who admires Austria in 2009 is an anti-semite because of what happened over sixty years ago. How pathetic!

deuacon: I think you'll find that more than a 'handful' of people use the railway. The point is that we need to be encouraging even more people to use rail, which we're not going to do by having a privatised railway with sky high prices. People are being deliberately priced off trains at the moment, which is absolutely crazy.

olching said...

Good article, Neil, though I think the Austrian railsystem works so well not just because it's privately owned.

In Scandinavia I believe I'm right in saying that the railways are publicly owned (and function very well), but they have (like in Spain or indeed the Ukraine) tickets, which can be bought for express trains. Whilst travelling is great, it also means that there is less flexibility on how to travel (trains sell out incredibly fast) and the prices are horrendous. So I think it's a matter of public ownership and a good system.

I love the old straightforward price-per-distance system. It's the same over most of east-central Europe. Makes sense to me.

And one last thing: How did the wannabe author Chas'n'Dave get a book deal? Is there anything more to him than bad oneliners? Is that what his books are like? Perhaps he contribute something of substance; otherwise do yourself and us a favour and eff off whence you came.

Neil Clark said...

olching: I totally agree. We need public ownership AND distance based pricing. It's sad but SNCF seems to be going down the 'market based' pricing system route- ie charging you a premium for the times you want to travel. Charging per kilometer and simply laying on more trains at peak times is the best solution.

Deucaon said...

Neil Clark:

Well obviously not enough people used it in the beginning and still don't use it since private companies had/have to raise prices in order to keep the trains running. I mean, if there weren't roads and no one had a car then such a system could be justified but then everyone would use trains for transport so public ownership would be pointless since tickets wouldn't cost a lot.

And who ends up paying for public companies which cannot turn a profit? Why its the poor honest sod who cant and/or wont cheat on his taxes.

Anonymous said...

great article Neil, thanks. Austria's a smashing destination, because they haven't privatised their entire economy means they're actually still a proper democracy - a distant memory for the likes of us.
Personally I think you're a star for tolerating Chas Puke-Burden
( Burden by name, Burden by nature)but he's really beyond the pale. His defamation is grossly offensive not to mention, xenophobic and racist. Banning Pukey wouldn't be censorship, think of it more an act of mercy.

Thanks for the laugh, Olching - have you seen that sweater he's wearing - never trust a man who knits his own garb. Can't remember what they called those old knitting books my Nan used to have, but Pukey's even doing 'the pose' FFS!


ey, Pukey - knit one, perle one, back to Harrys and slap each other on the back some more over Gaza. Despicable bastards.

David Lindsay said...

Austria, like Chicago, is mercifully immune to the economic system developed among her socially, culturally and politically more disengaged inhabitants.

Neil Clark said...

thanks, Tina.
I think more and more people are realising that a privatised neoliberal economy destroys democracy as it removes decision making power away from the ballot box and back to the wallet.
Austria is a lot more democratic than Britain, and more democratic than the US too.

david: very good point. Hayek and Friedman- and their terrible ideas-are rejected by their own communities. Oh dear, how sad, never mind.

Paul D said...

I remember travelling on the Vienna underground years ago and being v impressed at its efficiency and cleanliness and also lack of places to actually pay for a ticket. I imagine this system was fully subsidised and was obviously much much smaller than say the tube system in London.

Cetainly the act of privatising the railways in the UK was a political act carried out for purely ideological purposes. I don't even think it is now a particular party political issue. Peter Hitchens who I know you link to is very much in favour of nationalising the railways and he is not exactly a man of the left.

On another point it is sad that you allow comments that are purely nasty and vindictive as opposed to constructive critisism. I really think that what Tina says is really unpleasant and surely this is not a subject where some of the anti semitic rants of other posters should be allowed to surface.

I also think by the way that Chas N B's comment was also unnecessary.

kathleen said...

Bread and circuses and trains. Blah Blah Blah.

Anonymous said...

Paul D,
I'm sorry if you feel I was being unpleasant toward Chas Burden, I don't understand your innuendo about "anti semitism" though, because there is non, either in me or my post, saying that, I don't care enough about daft accusations like this, to toil over it.
I enjoy reading this blog and don't see why it should be ruined by giyus types screaming Nazi left, right and centre. If it ever turns out Nazi's were champion at knitting and home craft, I'll retract what I wrote despite not being the one who made that accusation, it was Chas Burden aiming at Neil Clark. Apprehensible to say the least.


Paul D said...

Dear Tina,

I absolutely agree about the name calling that goes on on this site and the often lack of considered argument. Unfortunately if you look at the recent posts on Gaza/Israel/Palestine the word 'Nazi' has been used a hellavu lot as being interchangeable with 'Zionist' and 'Israel'. I object to that and have debated this on other posts. I am sadly drawn to the conclusion that some of the anti-Israeli sentiment expressed on this site amounts to anti-semitism. If you agree there should be a two state solution - as I do - then that makes you a zionist as basically that word means in its most general sense a belief that Israel should exist.

I do not know much about Chas Burden. I know he isn't Jewish. I do not know what defamation to which you refer. Your reference to 'Harry' is presumably to 'Harry's Place' which presumably you must dip into too as do I.

Anyway, back to message. Although I have not been there for some years I have fond memories of Austria and in particular Vienna.

I'm not sure about your point though that democracy must equate with a full state owned economy. That is old fashioned socialism and we now seem to be in a world where the old labels and divisions simply do not fit neatly anymore.

Robert said...

Perhaps the railways want us to become like the India model you climb on some how.

Anonymous said...

Hia, Paul D

I'm not much bothered whether Burden is Jewish or not, all Jews aren't Zionists, all Zionsist aren't Jews. A red herring, that one. I take exception to pro Israel supporters abusing history, abusing detractors. Now that pro Palestinian supporters are using the same "you're a Nazi" - "No, you're a Nazi" tactics, it seems late in the day to start getting sensitive. I haven't called anyone a Nazi, I'm saving that for a rainy day.
I probably am what you'd call, an old fashioned socialist, I work in the NHS and see what "third way" neoliberalism entailed for staff and patients while private non clinical consultants, private, many of them, foreign companies, PFI's got fat off tax payers and the service it took my country 61 years to build up. I used to vote Labour. When we objected back then, we were told " That is old fashioned socialism and we now seem to be in a world where the old labels and divisions simply do not fit neatly anymore." Look at the social divisions now.
I believe in nationalised locally owned infrastructure, I don't want my railways, my hospitals, my water or my country owned by corporatists. I'm waiting for a model like the socialist party of the Netherlands, until then, I'm another angry 'voter' in a one party state.
I can't see how Palestinians and Israelis will get a state each because Israel ate up the West Bank for settlements, eroded into Arab neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem and continues to claim it withdrew from Gaza when in practise what it's done is lock Gaza down by land, sea and air. I'm a mum of four kids, and if that's how my kids were living, or if we were in the West Bank, forced to go on a "rat run" (outwit IDF and settlers) to get to school, I'd be polishing the rockets I'd expect my husband to lob into Israel if only to shame the world that ignored our plight.
Here at home, Zionists seem to be for everything I'm against. Privatisation, mass immigration, (but not in Israel) globalised "too big to fail" monstrosities, wars against Arabs in Iraq, wars against socialists in the Balkans. On any level, it's very much the extreme opposite of what I want for my kids or other women's kids - the chance to live decent lives with a stake in their own country. I did used to support Israel, that stopped about ten years ago. I don't know anyone who does support Zionism or Israel anymore. For that, you've only got Israel and it's supporters to blame.
I'm ferocious when it comes to defending free speech and naturally don't expect Neil to ban Burden (though he probably would have to if Burden continues to denigrate whole countries and other users on here) what Burden did was abuse the principals live on this blog to mouth off defamatory residue. People like Burden make me sick, yip, I've looked at Harry's place (horrible).
Austria is more democratic than Britain, they're freer, their utilities are better - now if that's "Nazism" for you, which is what Burden implied, then the world is turned upside down. That's just one reason why an 'old fashioned Socialist' like me wish people like Burden would stop his dangerous diatribes.