Writing for Tunnel Vision, Unjum Mirza describes the disaster of rail privatisation and the need for a service which serves public need not private profit.
Nationalising private debt
Ok, lets rewind for a moment. In January 2020, Grant Schapps, transport secretary, was set to announce proposals for a railway model ‘fit for the 21st Century’. His proposals would incorporate the final report of an independent ‘root and branch’ review led by Keith Williams, former British Airways chief executive and presently the Chairman of privatised Royal Mail. Previously, Williams had stated that the franchise system had ‘had its day’ and called for ‘revolution, not evolution’.
As the coronavirus crisis escalated, the Tory government belatedly announced the first lockdown measures in March 2020. The already-dead railway franchise system simply couldn't survive – it was suspended. Now, the Tory government wasted no time at all to nationalise private train operating company (TOCs) debts with billions of pounds of public tax-payers' money through a series of emergency measures agreements (EMAs) to keep the railways running in combatting the pandemic.
With the Office of National Statistics (ONS) confirming the TOCs had been reclassified onto the public sector balance sheet (debts and liabilities included) commentators and press headlines were quick to claim the railways had been ‘renationalised’ or at least ‘effectively renationalised’.
‘lncentivise the private sector’
Now let's fast-forward to the present. Thursday 25 February 2021, Keith Williams made an appearance at the National Rail Recovery Conference stating the ‘Government would need to create the conditions to give greater confidence to investors and to incentivise the private sector to expand revenue.’
Just days before (20 February 2021), the Telegraph ran a piece headed ‘Reforms aim to derail renationalisation fears’ reporting ‘Rishi Sunak is considering sweeping reforms of the railways to entice private train operators back to the network and avoid renationalisation.’
The Telegraph continued ‘Mr Williams will this week set out fresh proposals designed to convince private train operators there are returns to be made. It is understood the proposals have already been submitted to the Chancellor.’
Every rail union has rightly responded with fury. Aslef general secretary, Mick Whelan said Williams:
does not engage with the fundamental problem that rail is a natural monopoly. A monopoly that should be run as a public service, not for private profit ... This crisis has underlined the fact that we need to bring the wheels and the steel back together in a vertically integrated national network run for the benefit of passengers, taxpayers, businesses, and staff. In the public sector.
RMT general secretary, Mick Cash blasted the ‘failed ideology of rail privatisation’ stating:
Instead of saving our railways it looks like Keith Williams is more interested in saving rail privatisation and the fat cat rail profiteering that has continued even during the Coronavirus pandemic.
TSSA general secretary, Manuel Cortes added:
There is now a consensus that private sector franchising has failed, but Williams' comments today advocate significant ongoing private sector involvement. This risks guaranteeing private sector profits at the expense of passenger fares and taxpayer money.
What Williams is actually proposing is less his bold claim of a ‘revolution’ and more the restoration of a system of profitability for a bunch of privateers. There's not a sniff of renationalisation on the cards.
How? Rail report that Williams added:
any new structure would facilitate the opportunities for efficiencies identified by previous reviews conducted by Sir Roy McNulty in 2011 and Richard Brown in 2013. These include the elimination of duplication and workforce reform.
Note how Williams' proposals – indeed the very language he uses: ‘opportunities for efficiencies’; the ‘elimination of duplication and workplace reform’ – are virtually identical to the government conditions set for the last two bailouts (and the criteria under-pinning the current talks for the third) for TfL.
These conditions include identifying opportunities for ‘workplace modernisations’ and ‘efficiencies’ – their euphemism for a direct assault on our jobs, pay, terms and conditions and pensions.
The DfT prepares
The government is responsible for well over 120,000 Covid deaths. But, like any murderous criminal, this homicidal government led by Boris Johnson has developed a real taste for blood. Not content with the thousands upon thousands of lives lost, they’re now out to destroy our livelihoods too. Make no mistake: government preparations are already underway to take us on.
The Department for Transport has advertised a job for ‘Director, Rail Pensions and Workforce Reform’. The job description explains:
The post-holder will … lead and motivate team members across the Directorate, engage credibly across a broad stakeholder base, and develop policies which will shape and define the future of pensions and workforce in the rail sector.
we are seeking an experienced leader of diverse teams, who can build engagement and capability within highly technical, commercial and politically sensitive environments.
The government has already declared a zero pay rise for workers across the TOCs (over and above the zero pay rise received by many on the TOCs last year) and are willing to see Eurostar go to the wall with a devastating impact on jobs and livelihoods.
In an article for ConservativeHome – described as a ‘Conservative blog to champion the interests of grassroots Tory members’ – Andrew Gimson, contributing Editor and author of Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson, says:
What a wonderful time to be in charge of Britain’s railways. The pandemic both demands and enables a programme of improvements which would otherwise have taken many years to achieve.
‘What a wonderful time’? What a sick f**k!
And Gimson just can’t stop. He continues:
Since March, about £10 billion of public money has been spent to keep the trains running. At first sight, that looks like an unmitigated disaster. It is certainly unsustainable. But it also means the strike weapon has lost its edge. To threaten to bring empty trains to a halt is no threat at all.
He quotes ‘one source close to the reform committee’ that describes train drivers as ‘fantastically overpaid and inefficient’ and states ‘the powers that be are disposed to allow existing drivers, who are mostly quite old, to retain their perks, but not to show the same indulgence to new recruits.’
This is the kind of filth that we’re going up against.
So, hold no illusions. Battle lines are being drawn as we speak.
The government and employers’ agenda is clear. Starmer’s Labour Party is as much use as a chocolate teapot (and that’s being very polite!).
Campaigning among the public will be essential. The average price of train journeys has increased by 23.5% in real terms since privatisation. And they’re set to go up again by a further 2.4% (average) at the beginning of March.
The independent campaign against privatisation and for 21st century public ownership, We Own It, has calculated that that’s five times as much as a proportion of salaries as our European neighbours.
We Own It states:
If our railway was run in public ownership, we'd save £1 billion a year, enough to fund an 18% cut in rail fares, or pay for 100 miles of new railway track. That's because we wouldn't be wasting money on shareholder profits, fragmentation and a higher cost of borrowing.
At the risk to our own health, we’ve continued to work throughout the pandemic to support our NHS and transport other key workers, food and medicines in an act of human solidarity.
That solidarity must now form the foundations of our workers’ rank & file organisation in preparation for the inevitable industrial fights to come.
Most important: we must rely on our own power and the solidarity of workers across sectors and industries to win.
Download and read the latest issue of Rank and File bulletin Tunnel Vision here.
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Unjum Mirza is a driver on the London Underground. He is on the Editorial Board of Tunnel Vision, the rank and file bulletin, and is an Aslef union branch chair.
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