Commuter Hell – There IS an Alternative

By Oliver Durose (Labour Candidate for Brentwood & Ongar)

We are sorry to announce that the 08:26 Greater Anglia Service to London Liverpool Street is delayed. This is due to privatisation, profiteering and shareholder handouts.

Every weekday, I get up and walk to Shenfield station. Every weekday, I shuffle at the back of the queue waiting to get through the ticket barriers. And every weekday, I force myself into a sweaty, packed carriage heading towards Stratford and London Liverpool Street. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I don’t even need to hold onto a handrail, as I am rendered motionless by the weight of the three or four commuters that surround me. I would say it’s like a sardine delivery. But deliveries are usually on time.

Brentwood & Ongar’s proximity to London makes it one of the most attractive places for commuters to live. The same can be said of neighbouring constituencies such as Basildon & Billericay, Romford, Hornchurch, Upminster, and Ilford North. By the early 90s, these areas became full of income-earning commuters that depended on a railway service to make a living.

And where there’s a stable source of revenue, there’s an ideology waiting to profit from it. Between 1994 and 1997, British Rail was broken-up and privatised. Since then, private companies have been given funding by the UK government to run railway services for a certain period. Just like any other business, these companies make profits and pay out dividends to shareholders who have invested. In the case of the railways, many of these companies are European state-owned. Abellio is owned by the Dutch company Ederlandse Spoorwegen. Arriva is owned by Deutsche-Bahn. The profits that are made are reinvested from the British operations into their own transport systems back home. The most that British customers receive in return is faulty WiFi.

In this election, I will be campaigning to bring railways under public ownership. And when I explain why to voters in Brentwood & Ongar, I’ll do so with reference to five myths, each of which have enabled the exploitation of railway customers for far too long.

Myth 1: Private companies provide a better service.

In the last decade alone, train fares have increased by 37%. Why? Because as private companies fall further behind in their re-payments to shareholders, intensified by the high-interest rates attached to private investment, these companies seek cheap and easy ways to pay their debts. The cheapest and easiest? Increasing fares for commuters. It’s a vicious cycle: rather than re-investing the ticket revenue back into the quality and affordability of the service, shareholders fill their pockets with profits instead. When our railways force commuters to spend around a quarter of their take-home pay on travel, the system isn’t working.

Myth 2: Privatisation provides better choice for customers.

I arrive at the platform. I look at the selection of trains on the screen. I rub my hands with the plethora of choices that our competitive market has bestowed upon me: I can either get the Greater Anglia 08:26 service that’s been delayed to 08:29 on Platform 1. Or I can get the Greater Anglia 08:34 service that’s been delayed to 08:38 on Platform 2. Give me a break.

Commuters have no choice about which train to catch. There’s only one route. There’s only one train company. There’s only one overcrowded service I can use to start my day. The service has no interest in reducing my fares or increasing capacity, because they are not competing with anybody. And they know that, as somebody who needs to get into London to make a living but can’t afford to live there, there’s simply nothing I can do.

Myth 3: Letting private companies run the service saves the UK government money.

Since privatisation, government subsidies of the railways have increased fourfold, costing the taxpayer £5 billion per year. Just last year, the government gave Richard Branson’s failed Virgin franchise on the East Coast Mainline a £2 billion bailout. Yet again, a private company failed to deliver its promises and the taxpayer ended up paying the price.

The only successful period for the East Coast Line was during 2009 and 2015, when it was under public ownership. During this time, 94% of customers were satisfied and £1 billion was paid back to the Treasury. We are relentlessly told that privatisation diverts the cost away from the taxpayer. Repeated bailouts have exposed this for what it is: a hyper-capitalist, ideological lie. The evidence is clear: privately-owned railways waste government revenue. Publicly-owned railways generate it.

The reason for this is that when the public owns a valuable asset, ticket revenues go straight into to the public purse, not to shareholders. And given that governments can borrow money at lower interest rates than private companies, the money that’s saved can be reinvested in reducing fares. In fact, bringing railways into public ownership would save £1 billion a year. That’s enough to reduce ticket prices by 18%.

Myth 4: Bringing railways under public ownership would bring us back to the 1970s.

I could refute this myth by simply highlighting the fact that trains built in the 1980s are still in service. However, I want to make a slightly more insightful point. One of the most important motivations of the Labour Party is to clarify the distinction between nationalising the railways and bringing them under democratic public ownership. Whilst nationalisation can descend into unresponsive bureaucracy, democratic public ownership ensures responsive and localised decision-making.

Currently, if a train is delayed, the most a customer can do is to fill in a complaint form that will most likely end up in the bin. The people who own the railways, the shareholders, are not accountable to anybody.

By contrast, when a utility is publicly-owned, the board that makes decisions over infrastructure and the price of fares is made up of representatives of those with a stake in the outcome. That includes customers, rail-workers, environmental groups and taxpayers. Decisions are made democratically, ranging from whether we need better air-conditioning to whether it’s time for a fast-service between Brentwood and London. Unlike private companies, publicly-owned railways will be forced to care about what the public want. That’s because we run it in the first place.

Myth 5: Public ownership is hugely unpopular.

Bringing railways under public ownership is rarely seen as an exciting issue. But in the context of the climate emergency, it’s a hugely urgent one. If we are to be serious about securing a Green New Deal, we need to be able to provide affordable and accessible public transport. That means putting it back into public hands. And when 76% of the public agree with bringing the railways under public ownership, it’s time we started listening.

You might be sat there thinking: if all of this is true, then why were the railways privatised in the first place? It clearly wasn’t evidence. It patently wasn’t logic. Rather – and bluntly – it was naked ideology. A desire to put the interest of private profit before passenger and an attempt to reduce the public’s belief in the importance of public services. Well, a dogmatic faith in the free market won’t fool me. And I won’t let it fool the people of Brentwood & Ongar either.

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