Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

The Private Rail System Isn’t Working

The climate catastrophe means it's more important than ever to have an affordable train network – but fares are now facing their biggest hike in the last ten years.

Credit: Chris Jongkind / Getty

Back in May, the government’s white paper on the railways promised ‘the biggest shake-up since the 90s’. With pitifully little detail on how the new system would differ from the previous one, though, we were concerned that the new Great British Railways would be little more than a rebrand of Network Rail.

We were right to be sceptical. The potential increase in rail fares reported this week—of almost five percent, making it the biggest rise in a decade—proves just that. The increase will punish nurses, care workers, teachers, and all those who continue to depend on trains to go to work every day, while safeguarding the profits of the private rail operators.

The government’s white paper acknowledged the problems that stem from privatisation, but it seems that Grant Shapps hasn’t learned the lessons from his own report. If it goes ahead, this enormous price hike will prove that he is happy to let private companies continue to rip off passengers, while the level of service deteriorates ever further.

During the pandemic, Britain’s dysfunctional privatised railway system has been facing a reckoning. Passenger numbers have fallen dramatically as people continue to avoid commuting into work, with a survey by South Western Railway finding that rush-hour journeys have fallen by forty percent compared to pre-pandemic levels. If this is a trend across all rail operators, their bosses are right to be nervous.

And there’s a lot at stake for the people at the top, as evident in FirstGroup’s announcement of a £500 million shareholder payout earlier in the summer, despite of the huge government bailout that occurred in response to the 2020 lockdown. It simply doesn’t make sense that a company in need of such drastic government help could be booming just a few months later, but this is the reality of our privatised rail system: public funds are pumped in, but better services don’t come out – instead, they’re siphoned off into shareholders’ pockets.

The government’s Great British Railways plan, despite media spin to the contrary, only serves to enshrine protections for the profiteers, while the taxpayer shoulders all the risk. Being accountable only to their shareholders rather than to passengers means that the rail bosses’ response to the threat of falling passenger numbers could be to cut services, to try and keep costs down in the short-term. This short-term thinking is typical of the privatised approach: rather than investing in the long term to give passengers good reasons to use the trains, they will make services even less reliable.

Passengers deserve better than patchy, infrequent, and hugely expensive services, and rail workers deserve better job security than they can currently count on, with unions predicting that cutting routes will threaten thousands of jobs.

At the same time, with the effects of the climate crisis intensifying, railways will be a crucial tool in ensuring fewer planes in the sky and cars on the road – but only if we get them right. People aren’t going to opt for public transport simply because it’s the right thing to do, especially not in its current state. For many, personal transport still seems not only more convenient, but far more affordable.

We’ve seen in the past how public ownership can work to vastly improve public transport. When the East Coast Line was taken into public ownership in 2009, the service achieved a 94 percent customer satisfaction rate, required much less public subsidy, and paid back £1 billion to the Treasury. By contrast, rail fares have increased by over twenty percent in real terms since privatisation began – and further increases cannot be justified when wages have been hit by the pandemic.

If the government is serious about wanting people to return to our trains, it urgently needs to rethink how they are operated. Those in power must commit to a genuine, fundamental change that has been proven to work. The only way to achieve an affordable, attractive rail service is to bring all the networks into public ownership.