The People’s Railway – The Case for Nationalisation

Everyone looks to political parties to serve their interests. Likewise, corporations lobby policy-makers to give priority to their interest, for them the exclusive pursuit of profit.

The debate about the role of the state in all our lives is fundamental raw politics; the competing tensions about the extent to which the state ‘interferes’ in citizen’s lives versus the view that a state should provide for its people.

The Scottish Green Party’s mantra of ‘people, planet and peace’ incorporates the view that there is a ‘such a thing as society’ with recognition that public services, run exclusively in the public interests, are an important foundation stone of any socially just country.

The National Health Service (NHS) attracts wide support and strident defence from an appreciative public, an ever reducing number of whom have no memory of the time when access to free health care for all was a pipe dream. The return of a Conservative government means more of the neo-liberal agenda – not that involvement of the other two unionist parties would have slowed that particular direction of travel. Indeed, the result was no sooner announced than the promotion of ‘private health insurance’, was being trailed in one of the right’s pernicious journals.

So what of our other public services? Greens value individuals, their community, and the country and wish to see public services serving the public not corporations and their shareholders.

Many whose political ideology causes them to mock the former British Rail conveniently forget the level of public subsidy that the private companies who were given our rail network by the Thatcher government, receive.

Rail franchising in Great Britain was created by the Railways Act 1993, with which any Scottish Government must comply. Franchising is the mechanism by which Scottish Ministers secure rail passenger services and by which a private operator provides rail services on the Scottish rail network on behalf of the Scottish Government. I know all this because I have been lobbying for publicly run rail in Scotland since my election in 2011 and, whilst I was never met with hostility, the proof is there was, and remains great caution to pushing the issue. I was advised that for a public sector bid to succeed the applicant would have to have a proven record of having run rail services, something which wouldn’t rule out for instance a bid from the Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive.

Cross-border rail services should have an input from the Scottish Government. The East Coast main line from London to Inverness and Aberdeen, long the jewel in the crown of the UK’s rail services, failed twice whilst being operated under a private franchise. So, in stepped the UK Government with a publicly-run East Coast service returning £1billion over five years to the public purse, public profit for public benefit. Now many, myself included, might consider that highly successful state operated model was ripe to be replicated across the network, however, the UK Government, no matter its persuasion, will never place its citizens ahead of corporations and the franchise, and the consequential profits, and was awarded to ‘Virgin East Coast.’ The change wasn’t even discussed with the Scottish Government.

Within Scotland the franchise operates over 2,270 train services each day, and has 86 million passenger journeys per year. The rail franchise is the single biggest contract let by Scottish Ministers, worth a total value of over £7 billion over 10 years. The contract was recently awarded to Dutch state railway firm, Abellio who, along with German and French state railways, have also been shortlisted for the Northern Rail franchise in England.

The irony that state-run bids from foreign countries are permitted surely can’t be lost on anyone and the profits Abellio make will be invested on Dutch rather than Scottish public services. The Scotrail franchise returned a profit to previous franchise holders, First Group, and the notion that profit comes without public investment is errant nonsense as 64% of that franchisee’s income comes from the taxpayer.

Another intriguing aspect of the present contract is a guarantee of income for the franchisee in the event of industrial action affecting their profitability. That absurd clause is a significant disincentive to ensuring good industrial relations and clearly avoids the need for willingness to ensure early resolution of disputes.

In the last Westminster session, Green MP Caroline Lucas introduced a Bill at Westminster to return the railways to public ownership, something a clear majority of Scots want.

As with many government contracts, the rail franchises have ‘break clauses’ meaning that 5 years into the Scotrail franchise the Scottish Government could make alternative arrangements.

We must be vigilant about the East Coast reprivatisation as the potential exists that railways are just the start of the privatisation bonanza we can expect if corporate lobbyists get their way. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the trade deal being negotiated between the European Union and the US, which would give corporations the power to dismantle public services. TTIP also poses a significant threat to workers’ rights and environmental protections as will anything else that get in the way of the corporations’ profits.

So where do we go from here? The Green parties across the UK ran a very successful campaign to renationalise rail and enjoy the full support of the rail unions. We must broaden the coalition of support to once again run this vital public service exclusively in the public interest perhaps by building on the EU-wide coalition opposing TTIP. Scotland’s left, including members of the SNP and Labour Parties, support a public rail network and I hope they can join together with the Green parties to ensure there’s sufficient political will to make it happen, our communities and our planet deserve no less.

 

 

Originally published here: http://thepointhowever.org/index.php/issues/293-the-peoples-railway-the-for-nationalisation