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The Best Christmas Present Britain Could Get Is a Public Rail System

The current train strikes are symptomatic of a rail system that prioritises profit above the wellbeing of both workers and passengers. For a more reliable, resilient, and affordable railway, it's time to take it into public hands.

Cost-cutting measures made in the interest of paying dividends out to shareholders not only prioritise profit over workers’ pay and conditions, but put safety at risk. (Ben Collins / Unsplash)

For many of us, Christmas is a time for (re-)connecting with friends, family, and loved ones to share in the festivities together. Christmas is about connectivity—and nothing exemplifies that more than our railways.

Taking you from one place or person to another, railways are the lynchpin of the connections that glue this country together. Whether trains are taking you home to family, or in to shifts at hospitals or in care homes, many people will be relying on trains this winter. Such is the reliance on railways to connect people and places that it’s a natural monopoly.

Of course, the latest round of RMT strikes are impacting people travelling. But the point of strike action is to highlight the essential role of workers. Instead of pitting striking public service workers against passengers, pundits and commentators should be asking what private train operating companies (TOCs) can do to improve their services for passengers, and in turn the conditions for those workers now on strike.

The theory of privatisation is that it benefits service users by providing them choice and competition between service providers. Competition then improves services and drives prices up or down dependent on value-for-money. The problem with offering competition on a natural monopoly, though, is that the now-consumers are left without choice, and are a captive consumer-base beholden to the vested interests of profit.

TOCs cannot offer competition on the same routes, and therefore have no incentive to improve services. Instead, they seek to cut operating costs where possible—in this case, by offering reduced services, below-inflation pay deals, poor terms and conditions, and job losses. Where public services are run in the interests of profit, evidence shows the immediate financial gains are prioritised over long-term reliability, affordability, and quality of service. The strikes themselves are a symptom of the short-termism typical of the privatised model.

On top of this rotten deal for workers, us passengers also end up paying more for a substandard service. Take the West Coast line: just one in three Avanti West Coast services arrived on time between October and November this year, while passengers attempting to get to London from Manchester can be expected to pay £369.40 for a return ticket for a two-hour journey. Privately-operated services on the West Coast line were reduced by 21.5% between April and June this year, compared to a 2.5% increase in services on the publicly-owned East Coast line.

The conditions the RMT are fighting for have a significant impact on passengers, too. The government want to see 1,000 ticket offices shut and 2,500 jobs cut, including key workers who uphold the infrastructure of our railways: station, control room, catering, and retail staff. These cuts will make it harder for many of us to use public transport: your grandparent who struggles buying tickets online, your sibling in a wheelchair who needs help accessing the platform, your visiting niece and nephew who have never used British transport before.

Cost-cutting measures made in the interest of paying dividends out to shareholders not only prioritise profit over workers’ pay and conditions, but also put your safety at risk, and reduce the resources you need to access train stations. All this is a slap in the face for a general public already subsidising the bank accounts of the shareholders at rolling stock companies, who received nearly £1 billion in dividends in 2020-21.

So what is the answer? You might already have guessed. Public ownership of the rail system in Britain provides the antidote to the short-termism that sits at the heart of the issue. Full public ownership of our rail infrastructure enables the government to prioritise passengers over profit and long-term infrastructure investment over short-term shareholder interests.

We’d also get that £1 billion a year back to reinvest in a new fairer fares regime. At a time when people are worried about the price of food and energy, a publicly owned rail system might at least be able to offer relief from home worries with low travel fares and services linking up the country, as offered in Germany, where railways are in public ownership.

Affordable travel is also good for the economy, adding a further £2.50 for every £1 spent on rail fares. Given Labour’s new plan for driving economic growth and prosperity in regions outside London, a rail system in full public ownership offers the opportunity to do just that, with full public ownership of inter-city routes providing reliable, affordable, and comfortable services.

If the government is serious about ‘Levelling Up’, and if Labour are really committed to a proper redistribution of power and wealth, public ownership of rail will be necessary to fully link up centres of industry and innovation in Northern regions. The success of publicly owned transport is already evident in Manchester, where We Own It successfully engaged with Mayor Andy Burnham to take its buses back into public hands.

These Christmas strikes come at a crucial time, and can be the catalyst to spur on important structural change in the UK. It’s clear that privatisation has failed—we’ve already re-nationalised networks in Wales, Scotland, the East Coast, Southeastern and Northern lines. So why not connect them and make affordable, reliable, and fair transport a reality for everyone?

The possibilities with publicly owned rail are endless, and while commentators may wish for an end to the strikes, they are at odds with the general public who not only support the rail strikes (58%), but also public ownership of our rail system (67%, including 63% of Conservative voters). So for workers and passengers alike, the best present Britain could get this Christmas is a public rail system run in the interests of people, not profit.