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The Drum

Privatised Rail System Is Virgin On The Ridiculous

June 2018 will go down in the annals of political and not just rail history as the date when the long and tortuous privatisation of our railways finally began to unravel. 

When East Coast Mainline is rolled out as London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) in three weeks’ time -the third new re-branding operation in 12 years - it won’t be just the delivery that’s changed.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling announced that the East Coast Mainline will be temporarily run by the government after being privatised by George Osborne in 2015 to stop a possible incoming Labour from keeping it in public ownership . Now, Grayling has admitted that the East Coast line will become the ‘not-for-profit’ London and North Eastern Railway, after just three years with Stagecoach and Virgin.

This clearly shows yet again that privatisation of our railways doesn’t work because private companies – who will take profits from our passengers in the good times – aren’t prepared to take the hit in the tough times. I’m not going to spend any time here crying over Virgin/Stagecoach getting their sums wrong. But they did get them spectacularly wrong if they had to be let off without paying us taxpayers £2billion over the life of an eight year contract!

They have been blaming everyone left, right and centre. Virgin Trains’ Richard Branson came out fighting for his gravy train to continue. He put his firm's fault at the feet of Network Rail and the government for failing to deliver upgrades to the line, which would have allowed new trains to go faster. He also threw in the worsening economy for good measure. I guess he stopped short of blaming the weather.

The reality is that Branson simply wants public contracts which ensures his companies accrue profits at taxpayers’ expense… but we take the hit when things go wrong. This type of crony capitalism is the hallmark of Tory privatisation. Yet this  is now so politically toxic that even a market fundamentalist like Grayling has had to step in to stop such a lavish fleecing!

While fares for travelling on these services were skyrocketing, the service has significantly deteriorated under private ownership. Our passengers are forced to  endure ever-increasingly delayed train times, dreadful overcrowding and, all too often, no seat at all.

The situation is such we are  now faced  with a shortage of bidders for railway contracts and in April the Commons Public Accounts Committee called on the government to “conduct and act on a thorough review before any further franchises are awarded”.

The system’s broken! It’s an absolute farce that Virgin/Stagecoach is still allowed to run the West Coast route, taking profits on that line, when they are not prepared to take the strain on the East Coast. They should be banned from our railways!

And let’s not just repeat this sorry mess with other private train operating companies who are also wobbling. If the Sunday Times is to be believed, four franchises could collapse by the end of the year in addition to Virgin East Coast.

It’s not possible for the government to keep insisting that renationalisation is not a “long-term” answer. At the moment it seems like the only answer. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s not just individual passengers that rely on rail, businesses rely on their employers getting to work on time and not having to blow all their wages on fares. Our trains are full of people going to and from the business meetings which make our economy tick!

And public transport benefits the environment too. It would be nuts if all our rail travel was replaced by people taking flights or by road travel.  In  any case, our clogged roads and airports will make this impossible. As Freight on Rail point out, moving goods on our railways, is key  to  building a low carbon economy. The figures speak for themselves. Rail produces 76% less carbon dioxide emissions than the equivalent road journey and a gallon of diesel will carry a tonne of freight 246 miles by rail as opposed to just 88 by road. That’s just the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg!

We are not jumping into the unknown. When East Coast was nationalised from 2009-2015, it paid back £1billion to our taxpayers, it reduced the percentage of cancelled and significantly late trains, passenger complaints were down and it was ranked highly for service, value for money and ‘enough room’. It’s a complete no-brainer, we should bring all franchises into public ownership so that they are run in the interests of passengers and not simply as a vehicle to cream off profits for the few.

Manuel Cortes is General Secretary of TSSA