On 8 September, the Department for Transport unveiled a minor funding programme for green public transport. It came with a claim that the government is cementing the UK’s position as ‘a world leader’ in ‘climate resilience’, and that the Conservative Party’s measures are ‘helping us keep our transport network resilient into the future’.
What Transport Secretary Mark Harper failed to mention was that under Conservative rule, the use of buses has flatlined. The companies running local bus services have slashed less profitable (but still essential) routes and hiked up ticket prices. And trains are no better: they are expensive, inaccessible, and less reliable when they run at all. Recent scandals have included trapped passengers on a packed train urinating into Pringles cans and stranded 12-year-olds unable to get home until 3:30 AM.
The failure of our bus and rail networks isolates anyone unable to drive and pushes the rest into using environmentally disastrous private cars. In an era of climate collapse, we need zero-emission mobility, and public transport is the only effective way to provide this. So, why is our public transport system collapsing — and how can we fight for the low-cost green transport that we need?
A Failed Experiment
Before the Conservative experiment with privatisation began, our bus and rail network had been owned and operated by the public and local communities. A thriving national network, the rail system comprised over 20,000 miles of track at its peak, connecting smaller villages to towns and cities across the island, and buses transported more than twice as many passengers as they do today.
Then came the Tory privatisation blitz of the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher auctioned off public assets to private companies, assuring the public that this would lead to ‘lower fares, new services, and more passengers’. The reality, as we know, could not be further from the truth. Instead, a cabal of companies has enjoyed a relatively captive market and guaranteed bailouts from the public purse. As the system imploded due to internal division and lack of investment, many gave up on it and returned to driving.
In response to the fall in traffic, companies hiked prices further. Since 1987, rail companies have raised fares by more than 200 percent, with bus fares skyrocketing a comparable amount. With fares not adjusted for income, the poorest are hit hardest — as are those who are reliant on public transport to get around or to travel to work. The increased fares, in fact, act as a kind of tax on workers, with very few companies subsidising transport for employees.
As the spiral worsened, the next port of call for private companies was to slash aspects of the system that they deemed unprofitable. This included working conditions for employees and accessibility measures for older and disabled people. Overall staff numbers were cut, pay failed to meet inflation, and, in many cases, jobs were outsourced further.
The ongoing train driver strike by the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) is an illustrative example of the consequences. Shortages of train drivers have meant that companies are effectively only operating by pushing workers into overtime on their days off. As workers have resisted these measures, companies have found themselves unable to organise rosters — leading to knock-on disruptions outside of strike days.
As the public experiences this disaster of transport privatisation, it’s worth asking the question: who benefits? It’s certainly not government balance sheets. In fact, the companies running our transport system claim massive public subsidies: for example, public funds make up 40 percent of the revenue of private bus companies.
That shouldn’t be surprising. The nature of the essential service that these profiteers provide means that the public purse has been forking out when things go wrong. There is little incentive for these companies to make capital investments either, meaning that the taxpayer finances the core infrastructure such as rail tracks, stations, and roads. So the business model is almost entirely what could be called ‘skimming off the top’. Then, when the going gets tough, as it did when income from ticket sales flatlined during the pandemic in 2020, the public purse inevitably bails the private companies out.
The only winners from the failed privatisation experiment are the company shareholders. Even when claiming bailouts, most firms running our trains and buses have enjoyed healthy operating profits and continued to ship out dividends. We have, in other words, turned our public transport system into one giant funnel for shareholder profits.
A Green Solution
Our public transport crisis is not just a crisis for passengers, it is also a climate disaster. Transport emissions account for over one-third of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions, and this figure continues to rise annually. The majority of these emissions come from cars and taxis: buses and coaches account for a mere 3 percent. So in order to tackle the climate crisis, we have to build affordable and functional alternatives to privately-owned, fossil-fuelled vehicles.
Elon Musk and the automotive industry would like us to believe that the main solution to this problem is electric cars. ‘Ditch the dirty fuel and you’ll stop the emissions,’ they say. However, the cost of electric cars is astronomical: the average new model would set you back £49,818, far above the average annual salary in the UK. What’s more, manufacturing electric cars at sufficient scale would use up scarce resources and emit more dangerous greenhouse gases. Electric cars are good, but they are nowhere near enough.
Public transport reduces environmental impact throughout production, use, and decommissioning. Unlike private cars, which spend most of their lives parked or idling in traffic, buses and trains are in constant use, maximising resource efficiency and resulting in substantial emission reductions. Similarly, most of the UK’s rail network is ready for rapid decarbonisation because it is already rigged up to the National Electricity Grid, which with a smart grid can also utilise buses for overnight storage of electricity. Public transport, in other words, is essential for the green transition.
Despite Sunak’s attempts to pit working people against green measures, high-quality, low-cost public transport would improve the lives and well-being of millions while slashing emissions in our dirtiest sector. We already have the technology, the vision, and the popular support: the next step has to be to bring public transport back into public control.
Social movements and trade unions are fighting to bring essential services back into public ownership where it can be made fit for purpose.
Activists from Better Buses for Greater Manchester have successfully campaigned to nationalise the city’s bus network. The new publicly owned Bee Network buses — fully run by electricity — recently made their maiden voyages. This system is progressive in all the ways that privatisation isn’t, even redirecting surpluses from busy routes to subsidise essential, albeit less travelled, ones.You do not have to look far to find examples of bus and rail services improving when taken back into public control. The East Coast Line was nationalised in 2009 and now has the highest passenger satisfaction of any franchise. ScotRail and Transport for Wales similarly run more effective services at a lower cost to passengers while also revitalising previously underserved rural communities. Ultimately, public transport makes services more affordable, frequent, reliable, and accessible, and, in doing so, it allows people to make the switch from cars to public transport.
Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives remain firmly rooted in their ideological and financial allegiance to privatisation. This is why, despite Avanti’s litany of failures, they have extended the company’s stranglehold on northern rail, shackling passengers to another three to nine years of cancellations and fare hikes.
At this year’s Tory Party conference, there were a number of discussions about the transport crisis: each platformed CEOs and investors, primarily focusing on strategies to bolster investment and seed ‘innovation’. The ruling party is, as usual, planning to use the latest transport crisis to channel more public funds into private hands.
The Labour Party has the opportunity to be on the right side of history and draw on widespread public support for nationalisation. Louise Haigh, the shadow transport minister, responded to the recent train mayhem by stating that ‘Labour is committed to bringing our railways under public ownership, unifying track and train operations, and prioritising passenger needs.’ Labour leadership, however, has faltered significantly — Keir Starmer has already U-turned on a large number of nationalisation pledges from 2022, going back on his commitment to a Green New Deal that brings essential services into public hands in the interests of people and the planet.
Today’s young people deserve transport that they can rely on, services that are affordable, and a climate that they can live in. The policies that would produce such a future are on the table — but the lobbyists against them are increasingly powerful.An unholy alliance of Conservative politicians, right-wing media, and corporate interest groups is working hard to pit lifesaving green politics against working people. But public transport exposes their lie. We have the means to transform Britain for its people and the planet. It’s time for politicians to listen and to back a Green New Deal.