On Monday the 5th of January with about 30 others from The People’s Assembly, The Campaign Against Climate Change, the rail unions and The Bristol Green Party (who supplied the majority of the activists) we took to Temple Meads train station to protest yet another year of fare rises outstripping wages; and the whole iniquitous privatised system. The clock had just struck 5pm and a great mass of people were rushing to get home from work. At the pedestrian side entrance I was manning we were met by a solid and continuous stream of people; a great river of human beings rushing along their course. We placed ourselves strategically to interrupt their flow. After a long day’s work, as the light faded and the January cold set in you would think most people would be in too much of a hurry to pay much attention to a group of activists banging on about the relative strengths and weaknesses of different models of rail ownership – another obstacle between them and their home. However, such is the strength of feeling against the current state of affairs on our railways that we were very well received. We actually ran out of leaflets after an hour and a half – giving out around a thousand. Only one person verbally refused me, explaining that she was ‘a conservative’. Quite a few people even stopped to have fairly lengthy and engaging conversation with us – before rushing off for their train, or house. Almost everyone seemed to regard us and our interruption of their commute positively.
According to recent polling by Yougov over 2/3rds of people support Public Ownership of the railways; including a majority of conservative voters. It’s easy to see why. In 1993 when making the case for privatising the railways then transport secretary John MacGregor told the House of commons that it would not only shift the cost of the railways from the taxpayer onto the user but would do so whilst not increasing fares, and that “in many cases, they will be more flexible and will be reduced” as the magic of private competition increased efficiency and drove down cost. The reality (as it usually is) is far removed from this rose tinted neoliberal fantasy. Since 1994 subsidies to the rail industry have more than doubled, whilst fares have risen far more than inflation. Far from shifting the cost form the taxpayer to the user, privatisation has greatly increased the cost to both groups whilst allowing unaccountable shareholders and boards of directors (usually on six figure salaries) to line their pockets at the expense of everyone else. First Great Western took to twitter to attempt to refute my claims that their overcrowded and overpriced trains were the perfect advertisement for why we need Public Ownership. They repeated this tired argument that fares were rising as a result of shifting the cost to the user. When I pointed out that this simply wasn’t the case they had no argument to reply with
We have some of the highest fares in Europe; for the least reliable service. The only positive achievement the advocates of private ownership can point too is an increase in passenger numbers over the last 20 years. It’s hard to see how the fact that the railways were now owned privately instead of by the state would be likely to influence the average person into using them and directly lead to this increase in passenger numbers as the advocates of privatisation claim. Structural changes to our society have fueled this change – chiefly the spiraling cost of rent and general inner city living which has priced many out of homes close to work and forced them to rely on trains. If the trains were still publicly owned during this period but the same structural changes to employment and accommodation patterns had occurred we would have seen the exact same increase in passenger numbers, possibly more so as Public Ownership can deliver fairer fares. Research by Transport for Quality of Life has shown that if the railways were Publicly Owned we could have the same service as we have today but by eliminating the wastages and inequities produced by a fragmented privately owned system we could have it for £1.2 billion less. That would be enough to cut fares by around 20%.
Even if you do believe that competition between private companies automatically increases efficiency and drives down cost (which I’m personally extremely skeptical of) you have to recognise that this is not applicable to rail travel. Different providers can compete for franchises, but once established they’re the only ones operating trains along that line. It’s not as if I have a choice of services between Bristol and London. I can only ‘choose’ First Great Western or to not get a train. This is why they’re described as natural monopolies.
The choice is clear. If you want a wasteful, inefficient rail system that enriches the few at the expense of the majority then do nothing, and stick with the status qou. But if you want a fairer service that puts the people who use it above shareholder profit then you have to join the campaign for Public Ownership. Caroline Lucas has a rail renationalisation Bill currently going through Parliament. Its second reading is on February the 27th. Do everything you can to pressure your MP (your supposed representative) to attend Parliament that day and support it. Unfortunately as none of the mainstream parties support Public Ownership (despite the wishes of their voters) it seems unlikely that the bill will become law. That is why we need to mobilise behind campaigns like Action for Rail to show the strength of support for these measure, and come May, why we need to vote for MP’s and parties that support Public Ownership.
To raise awareness of and support for Public Ownership we will be protesting and leafleting at Temple Meads station on the first Monday of every month at 5-7pm for the foreseeable future. Join us and demand the alternative to rip off fares and a failed, wasteful, and iniquitous privatised system.