Tory Rail Privatisation Has Been a Disaster – for the Public and the Climate

This week, Boris Johnson has been talking up the role trains can play in tackling the climate crisis – but there's one policy he refuses to adopt: reversing decades of disastrous privatisation.

This week, after enjoying a vacation at Zac Goldsmith’s villa in Marbella, Boris Johnson made a short detour on his way to a cabinet meeting in Bristol to pose in front of a Great Western Railway carriage, with garish bright green messages about the environmental benefits of rail travel emblazoned on the side.

In the run up to COP26 these stage-managed attempts to greenwash the woeful Tory record on climate change will become increasingly quotidian affairs. However, there is something particularly egregious about Johnson’s professed adulation for our railways and their centrality to the Tory ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ when his government presides over one of the most wasteful and expensive privatised rail systems in Europe.

That’s why public ownership of rail must be a headline demand of any transformative Green New Deal. Our transport systems have been in crisis for decades. Entire communities and regions of the UK have been left behind, leaving people reliant on car transport as the only affordable option for life and work. It doesn’t need to be this way.

We have the technology and means to build a luxurious, zero-carbon high speed rail network that is accessible to all, ending regional inequalities and the dominance of private car ownership. Along with expanded and free local bus networks reaching every community, public transport can massively reduce carbon emissions and improve lives. 

As well as creating thousands of good, green and unionised jobs, a publicly-owned zero-carbon rail network with massively reduced prices would be able to offer a genuinely viable alternative to road transport, ensuring that working-class communities will not be left behind in any green transition. Transport (predominantly roads) contributes tens of thousands of avoidable deaths due to air pollution each year and is the UK’s single largest source of carbon emissions – around 34% in 2019.

We must take immediate action to decarbonise it if we want to stand a chance of tackling the climate crisis.

The Record of Privatisation

While 20 years of privatisation saw overall rail usage increase by 114%, in that same period standard single ticket prices have increased by 208%. In tandem, real wages have been in relative decline since the 2008 crash, meaning that rail journey prices have risen twice as fast as wages. This double burden has meant that rail is now a luxury for those who can afford it rather than a vital piece of public infrastructure.

Our overcrowded, ageing trains often contain the same care workers, teachers, and nurses who kept the country going through the Covid crisis, but while their wages stagnate, the profits of the private rail operators are subsidised by the state. It is time to call out this privatisation of rail for what it really is: an attack on the working class.

As well as immiseration, delays and rising prices for the public each and every year, the state also gets a raw deal out of the current marketised system. By allowing private companies to profit from the decimation of our rail infrastructure, billions of pounds of potential tax revenue which could be re-invested to electrify and expand the network is instead paid out in dividends to shareholders and management contractors. Even during the Covid lockdowns, we saw a recurrent characteristic of neoliberal state intervention: the privatisation of profits and the socialisation of losses. 

Firms like Go-Ahead received a £10 billion bailout, yet still managed to record a healthy operating profit of £6.5 million in the second half of 2020. Likewise FirstGroup announced an eye-watering shareholder payout of £500 million earlier this year. These payouts don’t improve services for travellers, nor do scraps fall from the table to workers and their pay packets.

Increasingly, public ownership of failing franchises is deployed as a tool of last resort by the Tories, rather than the common sense policy necessary to deliver improved, zero-carbon rail travel for all. This weekend in fact, Southeastern railway will pass back into public ownership after nearly two decades of sub-par services, and the revelation that it had failed to declare over £25 million of taxpayer funding.

It’s not hard to find examples of the stark difference in quality and provision that a transition to public ownership can offer. The nationalisation of the East Coast Line quickly led to that service having the highest satisfaction rate of any rail franchise.

Southeastern, Scotrail (in 2022), Transport for Wales and Northern Rail now form a small cohort of nationalised services, bringing much-needed investment to their regions and cutting off access to the trough of private profits that have engorged already wealthy shareholders for too long. 

Fighting for Public Ownership

Earlier this year the government launched ‘Great British Railways’, a new public body to manage rail infrastructure and ticketing, but with money still flowing to private rail franchises.

As frustrating as these developments are for those of us with a vision of an integrated and affordable public transport system that works for the many, the groundwork has been laid for the conception of public ownership of rail as common sense. We can see this reflected in the fact that the majority of people are strongly in favour of nationalisation of rail, with a 2018 poll showing that 64% support.

As well as their clear disdain for their customers, we can see an exploitative relationship between private rail management and their staff. Rail workers face constant threats to their job security and working conditions, with Network Rail recently opening a voluntary redundancy scheme to cut nearly 10,000 jobs and routes being cut that threaten thousands more on top.

As a legacy of the relatively recent privatisation of rail the sector enjoys comparatively high union density, with over 120,000 members across ASLEF, TSSA and RMT and Unite representing thousands of rail workers as well. These unions are unanimous in calling for public ownership of rail, and recognise the centrality of rail to any meaningful Green New Deal.

Rail has always been a key terrain of industrial action, and we saw three years of intense disputes from 2016 to 2019 across the sector. This winter, targeted action by RMT workers at Scotrail will see members walk out as COP26 is set to take place in Glasgow, in tandem with GMB waste depot workers.

As well as fighting for pay justice and job security, rail workers are standing up against the Scottish government’s woeful record of underinvestment in transport and their abject failure to take meaningful action against climate change. With Scotrail set to pass into public ownership next year it is vital that pressure is applied now to ensure a fair deal for workers under any new settlement.

Strikes on our railways can have an enormous impact on the Westminster government as well, with Johnson and his cronies bracing themselves for the humiliation of world leaders congregating in Glasgow while it bristles with industrial action over income inequality and decades of austerity-hit infrastructure.

As the Tories flaunt their pseudo-green ‘levelling up’ agenda to their client media, only a Labour government is likely to deliver anything close to the public ownership of rail. This was guaranteed under the Corbyn leadership, with both the 2017 and 2019 manifestos pledging full nationalisation.

In fact, on the eve of the 2019 election, Rachel Reeves herself actively campaigned for the public ownership of rail. After the 2019 defeat, during his leadership campaign, Keir Starmer (at this point still presenting himself as a continuity Corbyn candidate) pledged ‘common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water’, amongst a raft of other promises that have been shelved since his victory. 

Despite these previous commitments, and even in the middle of an energy crisis, Starmer and Reeves have recently ruled out public ownership of energy, refusing to ‘be ideological’ on the issue. This is a cause for alarm, because if Starmer is happy to reverse his position on nationalisation in one sector of the economy it’s likely he will do so again in the future.

To his credit, Shadow Rail Minister Tan Dhesi has repeatedly called for public ownership of rail. But if Starmer and Reeves are willing to hitch their wagon to the continued privatisation of our railways and other utilities, it’s highly possible they will undermine him and discourage any policy follow-through when it comes to an election.

Tackling the Climate Crisis

The centrality of publicly-owned rail and free regional bus networks to any Green New Deal is undeniable, to reduce aggregate energy demand, take millions of polluting cars off the road and to decommodify transport for those who have been unable to afford ticket fares for decades.

As well as delivering better, greener services, through a publicly-owned rail service we can create hundreds of thousands of good, unionised green jobs up and down the country. That’s why we at Labour for a Green New Deal made the expansion and electrification of public transport a vital pillar of our Conference Motion this year

After seeing our motion briefly ruled out of order by the Party for referring ‘to more than one subject area’, we saw evidence of a new consensus on the left around public ownership across the economy as being vital to our decarbonisation efforts. In Brighton, members and affiliated unions overwhelmingly voted to pass our motion which called for Labour to commit to a socialist Green New Deal.

Since members and unions have voiced their full-throated support for a suite of transformative policies with public ownership of rail as one of the headline demands, it’s now up to the party leadership to make the call and decide which side they’re on.

Are they going to join members, unions and the public and proudly commit to a democratised public transport system that puts people before profit? Or will they side with capital and leave millions to languish in a broken privatised market model that siphons public money into the pockets of the few?

At stake is the fate of our planet and their future as a viable political party. Let’s hope they make the right choice.