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We can all see that rail privatisation hasn’t worked

Aslef’s annual assembly of delegates begins in Liverpool today. The union’s leader MICK WHELAN says that the decision by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling last week shows the case for bringing all of Britain’s railways back into public ownership — permanently — is now unanswerable

“WHO needs Jeremy Corbyn? Not when you’ve got Chris Grayling nationalising the railways. He’s already got things going on the East Coast main line. Even better, the Transport Secretary’s now the butt of jokes from John McDonnell.

“‘Come on Chris. East Coast today, the whole system tomorrow’ was the shadow chancellor’s hilarious tweet. 

“Only a free marketeer like Grayling could insist that kicking Virgin Trains East Coast off the London to Edinburgh line and replacing it with a state-owned operator of last resort didn’t amount to temporary nationalisation.”

Not my words. The words of Alistair Osborne, the business-friendly business commentator of The Times in Rupert Murdoch’s business-friendly newspaper on Thursday. 

When you have a prominent right-wing journalist, writing in an influential free-market and Tory-government-supporting paper, taking the mickey — in fact, taking you to task, because he sarcastically savaged an earlier decision by Failing Grayling as a “brilliant wheeze” — then you know you’re in trouble.

And there was more. “The really embarrassing thing is that it took him six months to make a blindingly obvious decision.

“Finally, the penny has dropped. You can’t have a competitive rail franchise market if you can screw up a bid and still keep the train set.”

You won’t be surprised to learn that this is what we think too.

Because Aslef, the trade union for train drivers — and 96 per cent of the train drivers in England, Scotland and Wales choose to belong to our union, which was formed in Leeds in 1880 — campaigned first for the public ownership of our railways, which we achieved under the Labour government of Clement Attlee immediately after the second world war and against the privatisation of British Railways by John Major 45 years later.

Because we can all see that privatisation hasn’t worked.

Even Margaret Thatcher described the privatisation of our railway as a privatisation too far, because it is a natural public monopoly and should be run not for private profit but as a public service.

On every measure put forward by Major in the 1990s, rail privatisation has failed. Fares and public subsidies have soared — we now have the highest fares in Europe — while our trains have got more crowded and the rolling stock has, on average, got older. 

There is no real competition between the train operating companies. And where there is competition, between the freight operating companies, it has led to disaster.

We all know why the privatised train companies like the franchise system — when they talk about “risk and reward” they mean there is no risk, it’s all reward — but we need a Labour government elected at the next general election committed to putting the wheels and steel of our fragmented and privatised railway back together as a modern, integrated, and publicly owned system fit for the 21st century.

That’s not just what we, as a progressive trade union affiliated to the Labour Party, want. It’s what the overwhelming majority of passengers want too.

Opinion polls show they are fed up with being ripped off by the train companies. Annual season tickets in the south-east of England now cost around £5,000 — an awful lot of money to pay just to get to work in London — especially when you know £500 of that is going straight into the pockets of the privateers as profit.

That’s why we welcome the decision to bring the East Coast back into public ownership, at least temporarily, using the vehicle of Directly Operated Railways Ltd, until all our railways are under proper nationalised government control.

This is the third time in 10 years that a private company has messed up on that line. And remember that last time when that happened and it was run in the public sector, it returned more than £1 billion to the Treasury.

It’s important that staff and passengers are properly protected while the Transport Secretary desperately tries to patch up a failing franchise system that everyone in the industry knows doesn’t work.

I think it’s sad that Tory dogma — and no-one is more wedded to the failed privatisation model than Grayling — means they will, in time, return this service to the private sector, doubtless for it to fail again. 

Because with Failing Grayling, Richard Branson and Brian Souter — the operator VTEC, despite using the Virgin logo, is in fact only 10 per cent owned by Branson and 90 per cent by Stagecoach — it’s like alchemy in reverse.

Instead of turning base metal into gold, they turn gold into base metal and the profits made by East Coast when it was in the public sector into losses.

That’s why we want all parts of Britain’s railway — the wheels and the steel brought back together under a publicly owned operator, not a private, profit-making company more interested in dividends than safety.

Because we only have to look at Railtrack to see the horrific consequences that can have.

Mick Whelan has spent 34 years on the railway, and 34 years as an active trade unionist. He was elected general secretary of Aslef in 2011, became chair of the Trade Union & Labour Party Liaison Organisation in 2016 and was elected to the national executive committee of the Labour Party in 2017.

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