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TUC 2018 Time to stop pricing people off our railways

On the eve of the TUC in Manchester, MICK WHELAN makes a plea for the Conservative government to show some common sense

THERE are some weird people around. Well, people with weird ideas. Take James Price of the extreme right-wing think tank the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

When the Labour Party called for a freeze in fares last month to help hard-pressed families, he said, quite frankly and quite brutally, that, as a hard-nosed free marketeer, he thinks it is absolutely right to try to price people off trains.

“It would be wrong to announce any kind of rail fares freeze, as it would hurt rail users, as well as taxpayers, who subsidise rail in the UK whether or not they use trains.

“Taxpayers would be subsidising wealthier rail users to the tune of more than £1 billion over a parliament if fares were frozen and rail users would suffer a worse experience from more crowded trains and more delays. Instead, the trade union-caused bloated wage bill should be addressed.”

Factually wrong. But that has never stopped the really weird people on the extreme right. And morally wrong, too.

The latest government statistics show passenger journeys down from 1,729 million in 2016-17 to 1,705m in 2017-18, while season ticket journeys are down from 690.9m to 627.5m.

The Tories would have you believe this is due to the changing nature of work. They’re right, to the extent that the growth of zero hours, faux self-employment and general insecurity, especially among young people, naturally means no-one is going to buy a monthly, quarterly or annual season ticket if they have no guaranteed employment or because they genuinely cannot afford it.

We fear commuters are being priced off our railways and being forced to change jobs, move home or take alternative modes of transport, which also has a knock-on impact on road congestion and air pollution.

Fares across all operators are now 20 per cent higher in real terms than they were before privatisation. 

We care because, industrially, we want a thriving, successful railway industry that works for everyone in this country. And we care, politically, because we want a socialist society in which everyone has a fair chance.

But the privatised train companies don’t care. And nor do their chums in the Tory Party. Because when the train operating companies say: “Jump!” Failing Grayling just says: “How high?”

We believe the high cost of tickets is behind this decline, with commuters no longer willing to pay rising fares for overcrowded services running on unreliable timetables.  

The fundamental problem is that Britain’s franchised and fragmented rail network is now run to make a profit for private enterprises, rather than to provide a public service in the public interest.

Overall revenue has continued to grow for most train operators, but now that passenger numbers are stagnating and their massive growth rates are in decline, companies are bailing out, with taxpayers footing the bill.

That’s why we have put forward a motion at congress calling for an end to the failing franchise system, for higher levels of investment in the railway network, for affordable fares and for a quality service for all.

We have also moved a motion about the decline of rail freight over the last five years and its impact on Britain’s infrastructure.

Total freight moved grew steadily from 1995-6, reaching a peak of 22.7 billion net ton kilometres in 2013-14. This has since fallen by 25 per cent to 17.0bn net tonne kilometres.

This is largely due to the Tory government’s decision to tax coal traffic and the difficulties the British steel industry has endured.

Over the last year, coal transported has fallen by 12.7 per cent and metals by 5.4 per cent. 

Areas of growth for rail freight, such as intermodal consumer goods and construction, have not been able to compensate for this rapid decline. 

Unfortunately, while decline in capacity can happen very quickly, growing capacity and recruiting drivers takes far longer. 

The danger is not just confined to freight either. Rail freight operators do the infrastructure repairs and enhancements right across our rail network.

If the government does not do more to support the rail freight industry, Britain’s infrastructure and railways will go into severe decline. 

That’s why we are calling on the general council to campaign for more support for the freight industry and for the introduction of a publicly owned rail freight operator in order to ensure our network has the capacity to make the renewals and enhancements we need.
 
Mick Whelan is general secretary of Aslef.

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