Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

PUBLIC OWNERSHIP? It’s just common sense!

In A.Graham on March 31, 2014 at 12:37 pm

by Alistair Graham

Our railways – a case study

If we take the railways as a kind of case study, then public ownership provides the most efficient means of running the system. Labour inherited a fragmented (and run down) network, battered by war and starved of investment. It transformed it into a nationally co-ordinated system capable of getting the goods needed by industry to their destination and passengers to where they wanted to go. And whilst British Railways remained in profit, its revenue stayed in public hands.

In 1945, Labour was returned to power – and by 1950 it had successfully changed the face of Britain. Amongst the achievements of the Attlee Government was the mass nationalisation of the “public utilities” and the mining industry, the public ownership and control of the run-down railway system, the introduction of secondary education for all – and last but by no means least, the National Health Service.

Of course all this was attacked by choleric retired colonels in their clubs, papers like the Mail and Express and by such right-wing bodies as “Aims of Industry”. But within a few years, the drive towards public ownership had been largely accepted, even by many in business and industry. After all, the publicly owned services provided them with cheap and reliable resources on which they could depend. Like power and transport. The concept of a “mixed economy” suited them very well.

THE RAILWAYS:

If we take the railways as a kind of case study, then public ownership provides the most efficient means of running the system. Labour inherited a fragmented (and run down) network, battered by war and starved of investment. It transformed it into a nationally co-ordinated system capable of getting the goods needed by industry to their destination and passengers to where they wanted to go. And whilst British Railways remained in profit, its revenue stayed in public hands.

GOING OFF THE RAILS:

True, the system began to unravel in the early 1960s. The Tories were now in power – and Ernest Marples was Minister for Transport. He had major interests in the construction firm Marples Ridgeway, which had been contracted to build the first motorways – and he appointed Dr Beeching to head an enquiry to cut the railways down to size. We were now in the age of the motor car. And thousands of miles of track were shaved off the railway network as a result.

PRIVATISATION:

But the system remained in public ownership until the 1990s, when John Major was Prime Minister. Thatcher never travelled by train herself, and selling them off was beneath her dignity. But under new legislation the network was to be carved up, and bits and pieces were franchised out to private companies.

And, of course, we all paid for it. In a special feature in February 1998, the Clarion revealed that under privatisation the railways were receiving “some £2 billion in public subsidy – almost twice as much as British Rail when it was publicly-owned.” Today, of course, this sum is even higher.

True, during the Thatcher years, the railways had been starved of capital, as the road lobby was given its head. Privatisation was effectively the final blow.

FRAGMENTATION:

There are some two dozen franchises in the hands of private companies operating up and down the country. Many of the companies that run our railways are in foreign hands. For example, Arriva is owned by the German Deutsche Bahn.

The First Group, which currently operates the First Great Western franchise, is largely American owned. And so it goes on. Only the East Coast mainline is, by an accident of fate, in public hands – and its profits go into the public purse rather than to shareholders. This, of course, doesn’t stop the Government from expressing its intention to dispose of it at the earliest opportunity! Indeed. a French company, Keolis/Eurostar is one of three short-listed bidders for the franchise.

IN EUROPE:

In mainland Europe, things are different. The majority of railway systems on the continent are publicly-owned. They are run efficiently, with modern rolling stock and with lower fares than in the UK. Indeed, here in Britain we endure higher fares than anywhere else in Europe.

The argument for a return to public ownership rests its case with a simple question. Is it better to have a co-ordinated, publicly-owned railway network or a fragmented system run in the interests of its shareholders?

The answer should surely be clear cut. And it could be achieved by a simple non-renewal of franchises as they came to an end. Thus the rail network would revert to public ownership, and we could return to an integrated transport policy.

ALISTAIR GRAHAM

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