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Transport for London’s Bailout is Punishment for Being Public

The government bailout of Transport for London forces costs onto ordinary Londoners – a condition it never imposed on private providers. Once again, it's one rule for public companies and another for private.

On March 23rd, the government bailed out Britain’s private railway companies. It nationalised their losses and agreed to simply pay them a fee to continue managing their respective lines.

On May 14th, after weeks of dire warnings about its financial position, the Mayor of London informed the government that Transport for London (TfL) would cease to function at full capacity if it was not immediately given emergency funding. At the last minute, the government agreed to a £1.6 billion bailout package, £500 million of which took the form of a loan. That loan that will ultimately be paid back by ordinary Londoners through ticket fares.

Why is it that, in a free market economy, private corporations are shielded from failure by free gifts of public money, while public services are defunded and indebted? We must be absolutely clear, this is what austerity is: socialism for private companies and disaster capitalism for the public.

Transport for London, like the National Health Service, is something of a minor miracle, albeit one that gets far less attention. In a world in which efficient public sector enterprise is considered a contradiction in terms, TfL manages to maintain itself as one of the best metro systems on the planet.

Despite being one of those inefficient state industries that your Tory parents warned you about, TfL manages to service staggeringly high passenger numbers every day while ensuring a constant stream of investment and improvement. It manages this despite being bogged down by that arch-enemy of economic progress, a powerful trade union, holding it back by ensuring unbeatable safety standards and keeping one of London’s largest bodies of workers above subsistence levels of pay.

How can it be that one of our few remaining crown jewels is treated with such contempt by its custodians? The ideology of our times means that when essentially socialist economic policy is left to defend society from total collapse, it is treated as a burden instead of a blessing. This explains why, despite exceptional performance in the most hostile of political environments, the public sector finds itself beset by relentless economic vandalism. If it won’t do the decent thing and fail on its own terms, it must be made to fail.

Because TfL is too central to the London, and therefore British, economy to do away with, it has so far resisted the dismemberment inflicted upon British Rail. Like the slow creep of privatisation inside the health service, however, TfL has been internally restructured in such a way as to transfer large sections of its operating budget into private hands.

One possible future for TfL is for it to be turned in to a massive outsourcing racket. London Underground Limited remains a fully public enterprise, but London Overground Rail Operations Limited pays a private company to employ its staff and manage operations on its behalf. The private operator (Arriva Rail London, owned by the German state) bears no risk, but reaps a tidy reward, much of it arising from the money they save employing their staff on starting salaries considerably lower than those of London Underground.

The situation on the buses borders on farcical, with each route treated as a miniature franchise in its own right. It’s hardly surprising that in the years since the publicly-owned bus company was dissolved, bus drivers have slid from being one of the best remunerated groups of workers on the network to one of the worst. Their wellbeing was made secondary long before coronavirus started to kill them in disproportionately high numbers.

All of this is to say nothing of the horde of private contractors with their fingerprints all over the ongoing disaster of Crossrail.

Despite this, there is still a mechanism which causes the overall quality of TfL’s service to go up, while pushing its relative cost to the user down. That mechanism is democracy. If London’s transport network begins to fail, that failure is attributed to its elected local government. Making a mess of TfL is as surefire route to losing the Mayoral election as any other, whereas keeping control of fare prices was considered such a vote winner that Sadiq Khan made it the policy centrepiece of his first term in office.

Public ownership, even top down state ownership, places sections of the economy within the democratic sphere, increasing the power of your vote. The less the public sector is responsible for, the less elected public servants can be held accountable for, and the less impact replacing one set of politicians with another actually has.

Maybe this is why politicians of all colours have found it so convenient to support a state of permanent privatisation, despite the increasingly obvious economic insanity of it. They can focus on enjoying the trappings of office unburdened by the responsibility of economic management.

This is why, in 2018, the government commissioned the Williams Review of the railway network. The purpose of the review was to solve the problem of the franchising system, ruling out nationalisation in advance. The resulting proposal was identical to all neoliberal policy proscriptions since 2008: simply use public money to pay private sector operators directly.

This would allow the private sector to stand as a bloated middle man between the British state and democratic accountability. Coronavirus only expedited a massive public bailout of the industry which was coming regardless.

Britain’s rail doesn’t need a private sector ethos in its public providers. It needs transport to be treated as a public good across the board. And you can’t get that by giving sweetheart deals to private companies while punishing TfL for the crime of public service.