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MINISTERS are ramping up preparations that would allow them to take direct control of collapsing passenger train franchises, rail union RMT revealed today.
The union pointed to changes made over the last week to the structure of government-owned shell companies to pave the way for them to take over South Western Railway, C2C, Cross Country and Great Western Railway.
“Operators of last resort” – the Tory term for the public-sector option – are now in “the final stages of readiness to seize direct control of Britain’s railways,” the RMT said, adding that the government should “just get on with it.”
Since the start of the pandemic, when passenger numbers dissolved, the government has assumed all financial risk associated with running passenger rail franchises, but has continued pumping taxpayers’ money into the pockets of privateers under glorified management-fee contracts.
Last summer the Office for National Statistics reclassified rail companies as “public non-financial corporations” to reflect the reality that they were being propped up entirely by the public purse.
“It’s now clear that the final preparations for the public takeover of Britain’s failed franchise system are in place, and RMT says the government should stop dithering and get on with it,” said the union’s general secretary Mick Cash.
“All the operators are now effectively public operations anyway, with the taxpayer taking responsibility through a network of management contracts from which the operators extract a profit for doing nothing.
“The final moves to full public ownership would be a mere formality.
“We should cut out the middleman, end the failed privatisation experiment and reinvest the private profits in a green railway fit for the future,” Mr Cash said.
Johnbosco Nwogbo of campaign group We Own It said: “This pandemic has shone a light on the fundamental farce of rail privatisation.
“In the good times, the private rail companies let the profits roll in. In the bad times, the government steps in and pays them to keep running anyway. Profits are privatised, while losses are nationalised.
“But the railway was in crisis before the pandemic too. Overcrowded trains, cancellations, delays, skyrocketing fares. This isn’t how a railway fit for the 21st century should work, and re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic won’t make a blind bit of difference to passengers.
“So the government should seize the moment. Now is the time to cast rail privatisation into the dustbin of history, where it belongs. Now is the time to take our railway into public ownership so it can work for people, not profit.”
A Department for Transport spokeswoman described the changes as “a small part of sensible contingency planning to protect vital rail services.”
“The government is committed to replacing the complicated franchising system with new railway contracts that will deliver better journeys for passengers,” she said.
Unions and campaigners have long argued that the privatisation and fragmentation of Britain’s railways by the Tories since 1994 would undermine safety and result in worse services, with privateers converting billions in public subsidies into private profits.
Network Rail, responsible for railway infrastructure, was rescued by the public sector after its privatised predecessor Railtrack was put into administration a year after the 2000 Hatfield disaster. The vast bulk of maintenance work was brought back in-house in 2003.
England’s east-coast inter-city services, badged as LNER, have been controlled directly by the Department for Transport since 2018, having collapsed twice as a privately operated franchise.
Services in Wales are now also under the direct control of the Welsh government.
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