Expensive, overcrowded and unreliable: Renationalise the railways!

Northern Rail train, photo El Pollock/CC

Northern Rail train

Nick Chaffey, Socialist Party national committee

How hard can it be to run a train from Carlisle to Newcastle? The collapse of the Northern Rail franchise, forcing the Tories to renationalise the service, shows privatisation has not been the way. The Socialist warned that a privatised rail service would fail, be run for profit, fares would increase, safety compromised and investment fall.

How ironic that as Tory Transport Secretary Grant Shapps wrings his hands, he is compelled to implement a policy he ferociously opposed just a few weeks ago in lambasting Corbyn’s pro-nationalisation manifesto.

Currently, Britain’s railways are the most expensive, overcrowded and unreliable in Europe. And if you ask a striking guard in the RMT transport union fighting to maintain safety, not great to work for.

The Tories, advocates of privatisation, fail to see the need for an efficient, integrated, cheap rail and transport service, and its economic, social and environmental benefits. The capitalists are now debating the way forward and how to make privatised rail work. It is clear, for them, renationalisation is a temporary expediency.

Who should pay?

So who should pay? Anyone but them. So as fares have gone up, so too has the anger of passengers and especially commuters.

And it’s no surprise the Tories and rail privateers see the railworkers and their militant union the RMT as the key target. While RMT guards are fighting to maintain their safety critical role, the Tory government has subsidised train operating companies during strikes. After the election Johnson announced his intention to ban transport strikes, specifically targeting the RMT.

High on their hit list to make rail more attractive to private investors is the ‘Railway Pension Scheme’, which they claim train operating companies are unwilling to accept liability for. The railworkers’ union, RMT, rejects this view, saying the pension fund is sound, and making clear that the union will ballot for national strike action if attempts are made to cut pension benefits or increase contributions.

Privatisation was to herald a new era of efficiency and investment. That was never going to happen. Privatisation is a policy of profits first and last. With more public money going in than under British Rail, the problem is that a lot of that public money goes directly into the pockets of a handful of shareholders.

The Crossrail project, massively over budget and way behind its completion date, has led to widening Tory divisions over the future of ‘HS2’, the high-speed rail link between London and the north of England. This has been condemned by many as a vanity project, rather than a rational development of the rail network.

Privatisation has failed, but what is the answer? How would socialists solve the crisis of rail and public transport?

Britain’s early history of railways saw speculative expansion while profits were to be made, but when the bubble burst, rail went into decline as profitable routes were monopolised by four private companies who were then rescued from bankruptcy by Labour’s nationalisation in 1948.

Labour’s nationalisation programme included not only rail, but rail engineering, road transport, and key industries of steel, gas and electricity, opening up the possibility of democratic planning. But while the Labour government made important reforms, the economy remained in the hands of big business and the capitalists who didn’t want to see expensive government investment at their expense.

As a result, British Rail was starved of the investment needed. In the 1960s the Beeching report axed a third of the network with Tory demands to cuts subsidies. British Rail was deemed unprofitable and the Tories were keen to promote the auto industry instead. This continued under the Thatcher era with British Rail finally privatised between 1994 and 1997 by John Major’s Tory government.

Today’s debacle and renationalisation of Northern Rail is just the latest of a 23-year period that has failed to see the necessary investment in track, stations and rolling stock.

Where new, longer and more efficient trains are needed, the infrastructure doesn’t exist. It’s hard to believe that the most recent South Western Railway contract was agreed to include plans for longer trains to carry more passengers in comfort, when it was clear that the station platforms were too short.

There is a clear need for an integrated, environmentally sustainable transport system, using rail and bus to meet the needs of the economy and communities. But the motive of the capitalists is to seek short-term profits rather than meet community need.

The consequence has been to push up fares, rely on old rolling stock and infrastructure, leaving commuters crammed like sardines. Those areas not deemed economically important (profitable) are left isolated and falling further into decline.

The short-term franchise model exacerbates all these problems when long-term infrastructure planning is needed. Over 100 companies now compete to create an ‘efficient’ rail network, which is a nonsense as most routes are monopolies. Under the market, competition discourages planning.


To create an efficient, modern public transport system would require very large investment. This raises the question, what capitalist seeking short term profits would be willing to undertake such a task? Even though recent figures show Britain’s big corporations are sitting on amassed profit cash piles in excess of £750 billion.

But for a socialist government, infrastructure investment in transport would be a key task of developing the economy and society.

Nationalising rail need not be expensive. Why should the private fat cats be compensated after creaming of vast profits from public subsidies for decades? Compensation of shareholders should only be on the basis of proven need, examined by democratic bodies of railworkers and passengers.

The environmental crisis points to the urgent need to reduce fossil fuel transport. Wouldn’t rail investment make sense, linked to local town and city bus and tram networks? But to make that work effectively, fares would need to be cheap to incentivise its use. Private operators seeking maximum profits are not going to follow that path.

Workers ask what would happen to their jobs and industries if subsidised rail reduced car travel or road haulage. What would then be the knock-on effect to the car industry if car use fell sharply? On a capitalist basis, industries that don’t meet market demand are left to fail, such as Ford and Honda, leaving economic wastelands and unemployment in their wake.

But a socialist transport plan, drawn up democratically by elected bodies of railworkers, passengers, the trade unions, communities, and local and central government, could ensure that the investment in an integrated public transport system entailed no job losses.

It would see an expansion in green jobs, that could utilise the skills of workers at Honda and Nissan to work alongside the railworkers at Bombardier.

Private industry and the capitalists would resist any such moves that further threatened their profits. And, as we have seen, they can be unwound by future privatising governments.

The case for a socialist transport plan has to be linked to the need for a socialist planned economy where the banks and big corporations would be nationalised under democratic workers’ control and management, ensuring a permanent development of transport and its benefits.

It is these socialist policies that have to be championed in the trade union and labour movement as the debate rages about the ongoing crisis in rail and public transport.

Fight the Tory attacks on rail workers and their unions

RMT and NSSN protest outside parliament against the Tory government's threat to the right to strike. 19.12.19, photo JB

RMT and NSSN protest outside parliament against the Tory government’s threat to the right to strike. 19.12.19, photo JB   (Click to enlarge)

Tom Woodcock, RMT member, Birmingham

In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher decided that in order to drive through her plans to attack the living standards of the working class in Britain, she would need to neuter the trade unions.

Therefore she needed to audaciously attack and beat the section seen by the public as the strongest, which at the time was the mineworkers. To help facilitate this her Tory government passed new highly restrictive anti-union laws which made solidarity strike action illegal. Unfortunately this, along with the treacherous inaction of the Trade Union Congress and Labour Party leaderships, left the miners isolated and the state was able to violently beat the miners into submission.

My trade union, the RMT transport workers union, has been in the sights of this Tory government since day one. Because of its militant traditions and the fact that it organises workers in the vitally important transport sectors, governments, both Tory and Labour, have clashed with us as we vigorously defend our members’ jobs, pay and conditions.

Perhaps the most visible battle at the moment is at several companies against the imposition of driver-only operation (DOO). Our train guard members on South Western Railway took 27 days of strike action in defence of their jobs during December alone!

This militant approach is proving to be a constant headache for the bosses and their friends in government, as we are a serious obstacle to their plans to degrade our jobs through cuts and privatisation.

Therefore a new set of anti-union laws is being prepared which would require trade unions in key sectors such as transport to agree with employers to provide a minimum service level on strike days. This is obviously an attempt to ensure that strike action is as ineffective as possible.

There are many practical problems with attempting to set minimum service levels on public transport, not least the serious risk to passenger and staff safety presented in running a skeleton service due to inevitable overcrowding that would result.

Along with many other reasons, such as how any union can compel members to cross its own picket lines, there are serious questions over how these proposals can possibly work.

Nevertheless these new anti-union laws are yet another an attack on our class, and present more obstacles to workers organising legal and effective strike action. Look at how last year the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) comfortably satisfied the undemocratic minimum ballot turnout at Royal Mail, only to see an unelected judge ban the union from calling legal action.

The trade unions cannot afford to wait for a future Labour government to come to their aid. They must urgently organise to defeat the government.

The Trade Union Congress is best placed to organise strikes and demonstrations against the anti-union laws. But if they continue to drag their heels then the RMT, CWU, and other individual unions, should come together as a coalition of the willing and provide the leadership that is needed to start the fightback.


Read this week's #NSSN bulletin no.566: Workers start 2022 on the picket line!


To all #TUSC supporters Best Wishes for 2022 - let’s see if together we can find hundreds of trades unionists, community campaigners and socialists to challenge austerity at the May local elections in the biggest and widest possible socialist unity.

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