Magazine – Editorial
Friday, 07 September 2012 07:17
RMT general secretary Bob Crow on the space opening up for debate on the public ownership of rail
The sorry spectacle of Virgin’s Richard Branson and First Group boss Tim O’Toole at each others’ throats over the right to siphon cash out of the West Coast Main Line threw a fresh spotlight on the troubled rail industry. In the blinkered eyes of the bulk of the media, the spat boiled down to a beauty contest between rival entrepreneurs offering to pay billions to the Treasury to run a key spinal rail route. The tragic reality though is that rail franchising is a mechanism not for injecting private cash, but for transferring huge sums of taxpayers’ and farepayers’ cash into shareholders’ bank accounts.
Six years ago, the Transport Select Committee damned the franchising system imposed by the last Tory government as “fundamentally flawed” and its then chair, Gwyneth Dunwoody, said that it could deliver “only fragmentation and short-term thinking”. Since then, the East Coast franchise has collapsed twice in the hands of privateers, only to be rescued by the public sector and, incredibly, put up for lease again. When National Express defaulted on the East Coast it was even allowed to retain its other franchises. That scandalous trend was continued when First Group handed back the keys to the Greater Western franchise, neatly sidestepping an £800 million payment to the Treasury, but was allowed to hold on to its other rail contracts – and now finds itself favourite to run the West Coast line.
Nearly a decade ago the South Eastern franchise was run, very successfully, in the public sector for more than two years after the original franchisee, Connex, was sacked – only to be hived off once more.
Franchising’s defenders say that the private sector pours massive investment into the industry, but this is bunkum: private cash accounts for only one per cent of rail investment, and the rest comes from taxpayers and passengers. In fact, there is a net drainage of some £1.2 billion a year from the rail industry as a result of privatisation, and the cost to the public purse has tripled. But if franchising was already fundamentally flawed, it has become a weapon for implementing brutal cuts and fares hikes thanks to the McNulty report, now adopted as government policy.
Roy McNulty, commissioned by new Labour, noted that Britain’s railways were more expensive than those elsewhere in Europe, but conveniently failed to consider that those more efficient railways were publicly owned. So rather than look to stem the flow of public cash out of the industry, his perverse conclusion was to slash up to 20,000 jobs, abolish guards, close ticket offices, cut platform staff, water down and fragment maintenance and cut ‘unprofitable’ routes – while imposing inflation-busting fare increases year on year.
The latest round of fare increases rightly sparked anger among passengers, and we know that passengers, particularly women travelling alone at night, want to see more staff on stations and trains, not fewer.
We know that our environment needs a policy that encourages people to use trains more rather than pricing them back into cars.
RMT will not stand by and watch our industry wrecked, but this is an attack on passengers as well and we need a united campaign alongside rail users, transport and environmental campaigners and trade union councils. Together, all the rail unions and the TUC, have launched Action for Rail, a campaign that aims to build opposition to the government’s plans and to pose the alternative of a people’s railway, playing a vital and growing role for the economy and the environment.
We owe it to the generations to come to prevent a blow to the railways that would take decades to put right.
Get involved in Action for Rail, visit http://www.actionforrail.org