East Coast Rail, the only remaining railway under state control, was last week taken over by Stagecoach and Virgin Rail. The government has decided to hand this last chunk of Britain’s rail network over to a private company, despite the fact that the East Coast franchise depended on less public subsidies than the 15 private rail franchises, and has returned over £1bn to the government’s coffers since 2009. The move also goes against public opinion. A Yougov poll last year revealed that over two thirds of Britons support the re-nationalisation of the railways, and that’s not just ‘raging lefties’. The majority of Tory and UKIP voters also think that the network should be publicly owned. As such, selling East Coast off to a private company does not make sense either financially or in terms of pleasing voters.
East Coast has been a successful franchise. Its success shows up the privately owned sections of the network, which use far more government resources and contribute far less to the economy. Any profit made by state owned railways can go straight back into improving services and keeping ticket prices low for travellers. This is obviously not the case with private companies. The contrast between the two systems only serves to highlight the fact that the Government’s free market ideology is highly flawed. East Coast was a constant reminder to the people of Britain that publicly owned rail networks were cheaper, more efficient and made money for the taxpayer. Instead of accepting that their method is inferior and opting to have more railways under state ownership, the Government are choosing to try and brush this problem under the carpet by selling off the last franchise which could embarrass them.
Labour’s response has been half hearted at best. Miliband has promised to begin legislation to allow public run companies to compete for these contracts within 100 days of being elected. This is an unsurprisingly complex and ineffectual counter-blow. With the level of public support that re-nationalisation has, Miliband would come across as a much stronger leader and a more radical alternative to Tory privatisation if he made some firmer promises on the subject. Vague assertions that public companies might get a look in on these contracts at some point in the future are not going to convince anyone of his conviction on this matter.
The people of Britain need to stand up and make their opinions heard. With less than a quarter of the population supporting privately run rail networks, it would be easy to put pressure on the government to begin retaking control of the railways. This would benefit everyone, from the government and the taxpayer to the people who use trains to travel every single day. Publicly owned franchises would mean cheaper fares, something which would make a huge difference to many commuters’ outgoings. British rail fares are some of the most expensive in Europe, and it’s not as if we pay for a particularly excellent service.
In order to bring this kind of change about, people have to really want it. It’s all very well voting in a Yougov poll, but so many people who support re-nationalisation in theory are unwilling to put any real support behind it. This is such an important issue for this country and the only way we can bring about change is by becoming less apathetic. Stop letting the decisions of politicians wash over us. If you believe in publicly owned rail franchises, stand up and make your voice heard. Find like-minded people and begin campaigning. Many want this change, but it won’t happen without a collective effort.