Peter Stauber reports from the protest against rail fare rises at King's Cross this morning, one of many such protests across the country today
“Yes, that sounds like a good idea”, says a passer-by in front of King’s Cross station. She is talking to one of the 40-odd protesters who have gathered in front of the new entrance on Pancras Road. The idea: renationalisation of the British railways.
On the day that rail passengers learned that fares in England will rise by an average 4.1 per cent next year, campaigners across the country called for an end to the chaotic privatised railway system and the re-establishment of a publicly-owned British Rail.
Among the people protesting in King's Cross are members of Unite, RMT as well as supporters of the Campaign Bring Back British Rail. “People before profit”, is how one Unite member summarises the protesters' goal. “Even among Tory voters, this is quite a popular idea”, he says.
As the reaction by the passers-by suggests, he's right: renationalisation is really a no-brainer. Compared to other Western European countries, railways in the UK are less efficient, more expensive, and more uncomfortable. Astonishingly, the government spends more on the railways now than it did in the days of a nationalized British Rail, back in the early 1990s. Even as ticket prices have gone up steadily, the train companies receive a public subsidy of £1m per week.
Transport systems like the railways are a natural monopoly, and the “free market” that neoliberals keep banging on about simply does not exist – instead of one monopoly, each Train Operating Company (TOC) has its own monopoly over the service for which it has won the franchise. Consequently, a lot of the money simply disappears into private hands – mostly the pockets of companies’ shareholders.
No wonder that proponents of a privatised system have very feeble arguments, pointing to increased passenger numbers and absurdly calling for more competition and open markets. The government's strategy is to save money through “vertical integration” – handing over maintenance for tracks and signalling to the TOCs – cuts to staffing levels as well as more flexible working hours for the remaining employees.
A nationalised railway, on the other hand, would not only remove the complexity of the system and make it more efficient, but also increase safety and avoid risks to passengers and railway employees that are caused by the drive for profit, as the Action for Rail writes.
The protesters in front of King's Cross are very confident that the railways will be in public hands again – especially since the actual process of renationalisation is very simple: once the franchises run out (which they will do in the next parliament), they just won't be put out to tender for renewal and go back to the Office of Rail Regulation.
The case of the East Coast Mainline is a positive sign: after a disastrous service under private ownership, the franchise was put into public hands in 2009, and since then has been running a very successful service. The fact that the Labour front bench is resisting calls for a re-privatisation is a significant shift, according to a campaigner from Unite.
They are clearly in line with popular sentiment. Support for a public railway system is growing, with approval ratings above 70 percent in some polls.
Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.
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