The British railways are in a state of chaos.
Trains are losing their ability to serve the British public, thanks to huge price hikes, privatisation and inept governmental oversight.
While the cost of rail travel skyrockets, the quality of the service continues to drop.
Prices are soaring across networks at inflation-busting levels. Delays and cancellations are rife. Strikes are now commonplace, and the public are often unable to access services or find members of staff.
And the Conservative Party is unwilling to do anything about this.
Senior Conservative party figures such as Transport Minister Chris Grayling have become increasingly hostile towards rail unions over safety on trains and the ongoing use of conductors. Grayling has even hinted about creating legislation that bans strike action on the railways, a stance supported by Prime Minister Theresa May.
The British public has reacted to this radical Tory agenda with greater support for re-nationalisation of the rail service. Various polls show the idea is hugely popular with voters across the political spectrum. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to renationalise the service so as to keep fares low and commuters satisfied. As pointed out by the Daily Mirror:
A bit of a pisser for the average salary earner in the UK, that one.
This means that if you were paying £10 for your daily commute six years ago, you now fork over £12.50.
Your wages, however, have only gone up by 12%. If you were earning £10 an hour six years ago, chances are you’re getting paid £11.20 now.
The extra cash you’re paying to private rail companies isn’t flowing into railway investment, as the state still provides over 90% of the funds for rail repairs and new line work. The public sector body Network Rail supplies this and gets its funding from the taxpayer or government-underwritten borrowing.
As Action for Rail puts it:
“Genuine at-risk private investment in the railway in 2010–11 lay somewhere in the range of £100m–£380m, with the figure most probably lying at the lower end. In the same year, other sources of income for the railway – public money and the fare box – contributed £10.6bn.”
Those numbers may not mean much, so let’s put it a more digestible way: for every £1 million private companies invest in the railways, the government invests over £55m!
And in addition, private industry gets to keep its record-making profits, such as the annual £200m+ that railway shareholders skim off the top for themselves.
So with private companies creaming off the profits and fares skyrocketing, the rail system might soon have an entirely different clientele, with large numbers of workers warded off by hugely prohibitive costs.
With UK governmental policy continuing to view trains as attractive carriages of the future, those who can’t afford the service are finding themselves resorting to a desperately underfunded and slow bus network.
So who, exactly, are the trains meant to be for?
The British railway was originally created by small private companies to move workers and goods to industrial sites more efficiently. The British government stepped in with greater safety and organisational regulation towards the mid-19th Century. Improved national investment resulted in lines between the great Northern cities and then across the rest of the country.
The working classes then took advantage of the labour markets this opened up and the cheap cross country travel it afforded. These opportunities had only previously been available to the substantially better off.
High prices on the railways were driven down by public pressure that resulted in Gladstone’s 1844 Railway Act. This act initiated the penny-a-mile service for at least one train a day, pricing that outraged rail bosses and delighted workers.
The pressure placed on the government from working class groups and social campaigners such as Fanny Kemble forced the state to maintain an affordable and safe service and led to the gradual improvement of carriages too.
In the heyday of the railway, there were more than 7000 stations, which allowed people in even the most rural areas access to major cities, new places of work and potential holiday spaces.
The railway was Britain’s circulatory system, simultaneously powering the grandest industrial projects and whisking workers away for a weekend jolly.
And the great benefit to the nation, a rapid supply of large pools of labour between previously distant locations, was achieved.
For 100 years, the railways ruled as a uniquely democratising and liberating force within Britain.
But what about now?
Ever since ”Beeching’s Axe” fell (with the closure of thousands of stations across the UK) and the Conservatives initiated the privatisation of the railway in the mid-90s, the British state has been engaged in a manic sell off of its rail assets to private companies.
Private companies have siphoned off money from the system ever since, with rail users experiencing worsening service as shareholders enjoy record profits.
Even other states are considered more trustworthy and reliable than the apparently inept British one, with the Germans, French, Dutch and Italian state rail operators buying up huge swathes of the British railways.
Those countries then squeeze the British public’s purses for all they can and make off with the loot, mostly to invest in their own increasingly excellent (and heavily British-subsidised) public railways.
British companies make large sums from this sell off, with barely any cash coming back to the UK rail system or rail users.
This week, it was announced that National Express Group (a private British transport operator) is expected to make £70m pure profit from selling its “c2c” franchise to Trenitalia, the Italian national train operator.
How much of that will be spent on the improvement of services on their remaining franchises? How much of it will be distributed to their wealthy shareholders?
Ideological attacks and systematic purchases like these from rapacious private industry and their representatives in government, the Conservative Party, have had a severe and damaging impact on the railways and the Britons who use them:
- A 200%+ increases in rail fares since 1994 has pushed people away from the rail system, walling off the easy access to work that the railways previously offered. If you can’t afford to get the train, you can’t work in the town 25 minutes down the line.
- This has significantly increased the costs for poorer communities when taking part in traditional leisure activities, with 23% of football fans saying they spent more on travel than on their match day ticket.
- Closures of railway stations and reductions to services over the last 50 years have meant that certain communities are isolated and have become virtual ghost towns, with little economic stimulus and poor ease of access.
- Political attacks and pressure on railway worker’s unions has increased, leading to heightened antagonism towards union members. Tony Blair’s ex-advisor John McTernan called for the Tory government to “crush the rail unions once and for all” in a prominent but hardly atypical article, whilst Southern tried to induce scab behaviour with a £2000 bribe for strike breakers (Southern, the UK’s worst performing railway operator, also asked its customers to turn on the striking union RMT via social media, only for customers to savagely rebuke the failing service operator and berate it for incompetence and negligence).
- Job losses within the industry and the potential weakening of railway legislation have led to wildcat strikes by several of Britain’s largest rail unions, with RMT and ASLEF holding a “summer of strikes” in 2016.
- Limited (and expensive) rolling stock has forced more passengers onto the few trains on offer, with complaints from passengers about lack of space skyrocketing.
- Consequently, this has led to significant overcrowding, endangering the mental and physical health of passengers. The busiest route in the UK was the peak service train from Brighton to London, designed to hold 420 passengers but actually heaving with 960 as an average. Whilst extreme, this is reflective of general levels across the country.
- Affordable fares being deliberately well hidden, with millions of regular ticket purchasers being stupendously overcharged. A common tactic is to charge vastly more for a ticket from Edinburgh to London than you would for “split ticket” journeys from Edinburgh via York to London, for example. These journeys might take place on the exact same route at the exact same time but customers could be charged huge sums due to this deceitful practice. Hiding fares in this way is a deliberate scam.
Cuts to railway services have always been unpopular with the British public, so it’s hard not to see this as an institutional attack on the average British rail user, their democratic rights and their need for a functioning railway.
The railways have a long tradition of increasing democratisation within the UK. Any attack on the railways is a significant blow for the British public regarding our freedom to work and play.
If the poorest (and increasingly, the squeezed middle) in the nation cannot afford to engage with new opportunities, are we truly living in a functioning democracy?
We need change. And we need to work to make this happen.
It’s not just the major parties, though, that affect change. Check out the links at the end of this article to find people and organisations fighting back against privatisation of this most British of services.
We can, and must, impose pressure upon the forces that are attempting to privatise and profit from the chaotic destruction of our railways.
A useful, affordable and reliable rail service was won by hard fought union action, working class solidarity and constant pressure on governments of the time. And this is what we need right now.