Plymouth station ticket office. Plymouth station ticket office. Source: cc-by-sa/2.0 - © N Chadwick -

The Tories are operating a scorched earth policy on the railways, and a mass movement for nationalisation is the only solution, argues Kevin Crane

On the 5 July, and with barely concealed glee, Britain’s fifteen train operating companies (TOCs) declared that virtually every ticket office in virtually every station in the country will be closing. The change is being rammed through at great speed and as a completely done deal, with ‘consultation’ with the unions being no more than a matter of how office staff will be redistributed to other duties. The official line is that there will be no job losses, and if you believe that you probably also believe that the Tories have a strategy for improving the rail service.

Just a few months ago, the chief executive of Network Rail (NR) was declaring that the ‘war’ with the rail unions had ended, and all that would be left would be a guerrilla struggle of sorts that he and the other viceroys would simply have to quell. The Tory Government has decided otherwise: this is a scorched earth policy, intended to inflict damage at any cost

Closing the offices is an act of vandalism wrapped up in the rhetoric of inevitability because most tickets are bought online. But they also claim positivity, in the sense that the TOCs claim that staff will be there to proactively help passengers on stations. This is poppycock: we know from experience on London Underground that ticket offices are the most crucial point of contact for vulnerable and special-needs passengers and that taking the offices away is bad for those passengers.

The Tories have, as with so much at this point, entirely given up even pretending they have a positive vision for rail travel. The so-called ‘Great British Railways’ project has been quietly dropped: a transition team still exists at public expense, but there is no forthcoming legislation actually to bring the institution into being. GBR is essentially a fantasy body, a hologram projected over the crumbling mess of which the rail infrastructure actually consists. The TOCs continue to live on as pseudo-private companies, living entirely off public money, but syphoning large sums of it off to capitalist interests, while the quality and reliability of rail services continue to decline. They have lobbied hard to prevent any solution to the chaotic and fragmented structure of the railways being presented, as this would limit their ability to hoard fake profits. 

This puts the rail companies in the position that private bus companies were in roughly twenty years ago: absurdly lobbying for the decline of their own industry as a result of irrational incentives and captured monopolies. The impact, however, may well be worse than it has been on the buses, as the scope for compromising public safety is far greater and we have plenty of experience of how damaging to human life poor rail maintenance can be.

Difficulties for the unions

The unions are in an extremely difficult position. The pace at which this damage is being done is such that even organising the most basic industrial action is near impossible due to the restrictions of the anti-union laws. The fact is, also, that as angry as the Tories are about their mass acts of resistance last year, neither of the station unions has come out of the situation in great shape. The RMT has not won big victories and gave away much in terms of job security on Network Rail. The smaller union, TSSA, is still reeling from the fallout of an appalling sexism scandal. The workers desperately need solidarity from the wider movement to mount any fight back at all.

The closest things we could describe as a glimmer of hope in all this are, firstly, that the drivers’ union, ASLEF, is still fighting very strongly over pay and, secondly, that the Tories’ bullish non-administration of rail is undermining their own policies of enforced privatisation. Up until a few months ago, Department for Transport officials seemed confident that GBR would provide a highly restrictive organisational framework. This would make it practically impossible for an incoming Labour government to nationalise the railways, which the party is still notionally committed to doing. Letting things disintegrate in the way that the Tories have means, however, that even if Starmers’ Labour wants to avoid the question of public rail ownership, they may not have any alternative. This would be not least because public ownership would be a very popular move.

The need for a mass movement to demand an alternative to never-ending Tory economic misery grows by the day. We must act if we want that alternative.

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