The 3.6% hike in rail fares, announced last August, came into effect last Tuesday, and I have already seen the usual, rather weak, excuses offered in defence of rail privatization on the below the line comments threads on The Guardian and on Twitter. Have you noticed how their defences always seem to repeat the same canards? So, let’s have a look at them in no particular order:
- Passenger numbers have increased since privatization. This is probably the silliest of all the stock responses made in defence of privatized rail. It’s silly because it ignores the growth in population. One thing does not lead to the other. Indeed, populations in countries that have nationalized railways have also increased but you don’t see the same overcrowding, nor does one have to pay a king’s ransom to travel by rail in those countries. Sometimes this excuse is also used to smuggle in anti-immigration discourses.
- Why should I subsidize people who travel by rail? This one is usually offered by ‘me first’ types, who have internalized Thatcherite dogma and are incapable of seeing anything other than the self. Conversely, why should those people who never use pavements or the motorways subsidize the maintenance of those things? Another silly reply easily dismissed.
- Why should I care about commuters in London? This reply ignores the commuter rail networks in major conurbations like Glasgow, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. It also dismisses, out of hand, the users of rural rail services, which not only remain expensive, but are patchy at best.
- Why should the taxpayer foot the bill? This question sidesteps the obvious: commuters and other rail users are taxpayers. If you are in any passenger group and are working, you effectively pay twice: once through vastly inflated fares and again through your taxes. The private train operators are subsidized, which means they make money from passengers but also benefit from the state’s corporate welfare scheme. The Virgin East Coast Mainline is in such dire financial straights that the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling, has offered to bail them out to the tune of £2bn.
- Rail fares need to increase to fund improvements. This is the rail operators’ main line of defence but when it’s unpacked and the privatized model is held up against the nationalized railways on continental Europe, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Privatized train operators make profits for shareholders, who demand greater dividends. Therefore, the profits that are made, don’t go back into the business but are used to further enrich rentiers, many of whom don’t live in the United Kingdom. Indeed, some of the Train Operating Companies are actually owned by foreign nationalized railways themselves. Deutsche Bahn, the German state-owned rail company, runs the Northern Rail franchise, for example.
- Ah, but the rail network is nationalized; the rail tracks are owned by the state. So what? Passengers pay their fares to TOC’s and not the inanimate track, on which the trains run. The railway network is, for all intents and purposes, privately operated. Passengers can’t travel on the rail tracks without trains, because to do so would be to trespass on the permanent way. It’s also dangerous.
- We don’t want to go back to British Rail. Well, actually, yes we do. The problem with this line of defence is that it deliberately ignores the fact that BR was chronically underfunded and was as poorly managed as the rest of the British economy. This includes the private sector, in which British management has long been a problem – especially with regards to low productivity. I’m old enough to remember BR and it wasn’t as bad as many naysayers say it was.
So, if the privatized railway model is so good, then why hasn’t it been adopted in other countries? The answer to that question is obvious: because it’s flawed; the fragmented structure of rail tracks, TOC’s, train leasing companies, and various regulators make it a real dog’s dinner. Why would any country want to adopt such a tangled mess?
The response to last week’s fare increase was fairly predictable: protests were held at 40 railways stations and the usual gasps of disbelief could be heard up and down the country, but how does waving placards and handing out leaflets to passengers actually affect anything? What we really need is a mass fare strike coordinated with the rail unions. Fare strikes have been used in other countries, notably in Australia. But we’ve had fare strikes in Britain too. In 2007 and 2008, passengers on First Great Western refused to pay fares. The South Yorkshire Freedom Riders are a fairly recent example of how people power can force change.
Instead of complaining on social media and telling jokes, how about taking some real action for a change?