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YOU would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Britain who thought that our railway wasn’t a complete shambles.
And in fact, recent survey results published by Transport Focus show that the vast majority of commuters are unsatisfied with their rail journeys. Unsurprising, when punctuality has hit a new 10-year low, after the chaos of this summer’s timetable fiasco.
For the past 30 years, we’ve been sold the lie that privatisation of railways (and all our other essential public services) will make them cheaper and better. At this point, nobody believes the lie any more — but it keeps getting repeated.
Some are even calling for more privatisation to fix the problems we’re facing.
This ideological commitment to a failed ideology is exactly what makes Transport Secretary Chris Grayling the “most incompetent minister” in the current government.
And that’s saying something. Grayling wasn’t satisfied by wrecking the probation service by forcing half of it into privatisation. He then moved on to transport, and continues to be blind to the reality that privatisation has utterly failed.
Last year’s rail chaos was made all the more frustrating by the complete lack of responsibility taken by Grayling or any of the train companies.
Grayling infamously said: “I don’t run the railways” and each of the train operating companies, Virgin, Stagecoach, Arriva, and so on, spend thousands of pounds every year, and hundreds of hours of staff time, on something called “delay attribution.”
Or in other words, blaming someone else for delays. No wonder nothing gets fixed. This is frankly childish behaviour, and it’s an example of the kind of problems “competition” can cause on a network that really needs co-operation instead.
One good thing that came out of the commuters’ nightmare that was the timetable update, is that Grayling has finally been forced to admit that there is a problem.
He can’t continue to stand up and say that nothing needs to change, and that privatisation is working. He’s announced a “root and branch review” of the railways, which has been described as the most radical review of our railway since privatisation in 1994.
That’s nearly 30 years — a whole generation — without the chance to fix the mistake of privatisation.
The problem is, Grayling already knows what he wants the review to recommend. His pet project — Rail 2020 — is a proposal for more privatisation. Fabulous. Just what we need.
His plan would see our national rail network fragmented into regions, each of which would be run by a joint “public-private-partnership” between the track and the trains.
At the moment, Network Rail, which is publicly owned, runs the tracks, and 16 private train operating companies run the services that they have been given a contract for by the government. These franchises typically run for six to eight years, and then the contract goes up for tender again.
Network Rail can, under the current system, plan improvements, maintenance, and changes to our national track network.
It can, in theory, make sure that maintenance on one section of the track has as little impact as possible on other areas, and that two main routes from A to B aren’t disrupted at the same time.
Under Grayling’s plan, this small amount of national co-ordination will be impossible.
Each region of track would be the responsibility of a different organisation, and there will be even less co-operation between train companies than there currently is. More fragmentation, when what we need is co-operation and simplicity.
But really, who cares what Grayling wants? This review is headed up by Keith Williams, who has said publicly that he wants the review to make a real and lasting change for commuters.
He’s also said that “all options are on the table” — including public ownership. He’s also shown that he is open to hearing from the public — and he’s agreed to meet with campaigners from We Own It, Bring Back British Rail, and the Association of British Commuters.
So this is our chance — the first in 25 years — to really push for the change we need on our railways. Public ownership is the only way to fix our broken, fragmented rail network.
The national track network needs to be integrated with planning routes and services. These routes and services need to co-operate and co-ordinate nationally, with different levels of decision-making and planning for city-regions like Merseyside and Greater Manchester.
This would allow planners to make sure delays and signal failures have as little knock-on effect as possible. And when delays do occur, it would be much easier to figure out what went wrong, and how to fix it for next time, instead of the tiresome and childish blame game that is currently played.
Public ownership would save us a billion pounds a year, money that we could plough back into reducing fares and improving the service.
Public ownership works, and it’s popular. According to a Legatum Institute survey in 2017, 76 per cent of us want our railways to be run in public ownership.
The Williams review is our chance to get public ownership on the table. It’s the only way to fix our broken railway.
We think there’s a real chance that Williams will include a form of public ownership in his recommendations to the government, or at the very least, make sure that Grayling can’t push through his disastrous alternative plan.
To make this happen, we have to convince Williams that public ownership is the answer and that it is what people want.
That’s why we’ve collected over 700 personal testimonies from the public, to tell Keith what we want him to recommend in his review.
When we meet Williams in March, we’ll ask him to address these testimonies and pledge to look at public ownership in his review.
Obviously, without a Labour government, it’s unlikely that we’ll bring our railways into public ownership soon. But by building pressure through this and other channels, we can make the case for public ownership impossible to ignore.
And in the meantime, this gives us a chance to block Grayling’s ill-thought-out Rail 2020 plan.
Ellen Lees is campaigns officer at We Own It — the campaign for public ownership.
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