By Gerry Bates
Railway privatisation has been a disaster, for passengers, for railworkers, for taxpayers. Public money spent on the railways now is three times what it was in the last year of the nationalised railways. Private Train Operating Companies are raking in profits.
Fare rises this year will be above inflation, as Train Operating Companies pass the costs of the improvements they must make on to passengers.
Delays are worse now than in 1997. One in five peak-time trains arrives late. Often the high fare passengers pay does not buy them a seat, just the chance to stand on a train that is overcrowded and dirty.
Accidents have increased since privatisation.
Yes, it is true, even under privatisation, that railways remain a relatively safe form of transport. But this tells us only that the railways deserve more investment, to be expanded and improved, at the expense of road transport. The favourable comparison with road transport accidents is no consolation to the families and friends of those who have died since rail privatisation in the accidents at Clapham, Paddington, Hatfield, Potters Bar.
Privatisation in 1996, artificially breaking up a single railway system under a single management into myriad competing units, was the triumph of Thatcherite dogma over common sense, even from the viewpoint of the bourgeoisie who, to make their profits, need workers and goods to arrive on time and in good shape.
The extent of this lunacy has been demonstrated by the gradual but inexorable unravelling of privatisation. There is gradual reintegration of the network, creeping state interference in its running: the setting up of the Strategic Rail Authority in 2001, the recent announcement of the taking back in-house of routine track maintenance work.
The RMT union represents many of the 18,000 track workers who will benefit from being transferred back to a single employer, Network Rail, from the many private track maintenance companies. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: "It will be far better now, with people coming to work dedicated to one company, not working for one contractor one week and the next for another. You will see the dedication being put back into the industry."
This is one small triumph. But the lunacy has a lot further to unravel.
The Government has just announced a rail review to look at the whole industry. What are the chances of it recommending finally that the rail industry should be renationalised? Not good. But not because it doesn't make sense. There is no logic to say that any part of the rail service is better run by a private company.
Private companies work for profit first and people second. We need railways run as a service, for the good of passengers and workers, not as a milch-cow for shareholders and company directors. We can campaign in the coming period to take the railways back into public ownership, democratically accountable to users and workers. The rail unions must take a lead in this campaign.