The Rail and Maritime Transport union (RMT) has called for further strikes in May by its members employed by Arriva Rail North, Greater Anglia and South Western Railway. The strikes are the latest salvo fired by the union in a two-year-long battle to defend the safety role of the guard on trains and combat the threat of extending the use of ‘driver only operation’ (DOO).
What is driving so many of the franchise-holding train operating companies into pushing for DOO is the desire to run rail travel on the cheap, thereby maximising profit to its shareholders.
When a franchise comes up for renewal, companies compete to win the franchise by promising to deliver high performance on a shoestring, overbidding for the franchise in order to see off their rivals. Then when the winning company proves unable to live up to its promises, it is bailed out by a government that is fearful of the disruption that would be caused by allowing it to fail.
At one point, in the case of East Coast Mainline, one lot of privateers ran the franchise into the ground; the government took it over, patched it up – and then promptly handed it over to another bunch of cowboys.
In early May, Stagecoach and Virgin were reported to be “weeks away from collapse after the companies made wildly overoptimistic forecasts about how many customers would travel on the line”, making this the third collapsed franchise on the London to Scotland line in 12 years. (Railway franchise system ‘is broken’ by Graeme Paton, The Times, 27 April 2018)
The privatised rail industry has been a brilliant success in terms of providing a lucrative avenue of investment for footloose capital and maximum profits for directors and shareholders. In terms of running a public service, however, it has proved increasingly disastrous, with soaring rail fares, eroding safety standards, overcrowding, delays and cancellations.
According to an article in the Sunday Times: “Delays are soaring across the network, with performance getting worse in 17 of Britain’s 23 rail franchises. On the lines run by the worst performer – Virgin East Coast – 63 percent of trains have been late during the past month, according to statistics showing the performance of every train at almost every stop.
“Many passengers are so fed up they are abandoning train travel and working more days from home. Season ticket use has dropped by 8 percent in a year, while demand on a Friday has dropped 10 percent on some commuter routes, sources claim.
“Problems mount with new trains. The introduction of 70 Hitachi trains in Scotland, costing £370m, is delayed because the ‘fishbowl’ design of their front window means drivers see double at night.” (Rail pain piles up as five operators totter by Mark Hookham and John Collingridge, The Sunday Times, 22 April 2018)
Then on 16 May, transport minister Chris Grayling finally announced that Virgin and Stagecoach are to relinquish the East Coast Mainline franchise on 24 June, five years before their allotted lifespan.
Yet again, the service is to be taken back into arm’s length public ownership, until Grayling is able to conjure up another taxpayer-funded “public-private partnership” in 2020.
Between 2009 and 2015, when the East Coast service was state-run, the service was found to be more efficient and cheaper to run.
According to the Financial Times: “Analysis by the rail regulator in 2013 found that the state-run line had been the most efficient, requiring much lower government funding than any of the 15 franchises then let by the Department for Transport to private operators.” (East Coast rail franchise collapse fuels fears of knock-on impact by Jim Pickard and Josh Spero, 17 May 2018)
It is in this context that the growing debate over renationalisation of the railways must be seen: not as a radical ‘socialist’ measure, but as one demanded by an increasingly large section of the British capitalist ruling class, whose business interests are threatened by the shambolic lurches from disaster to disaster of Britain’s failing rail services.
Renationalisation is also, of course, desperately needed by workers, who have been increasingly priced out of using trains and even buses as the privateers have wrecked services and jacked up prices to astronomical levels.
The stalwart resistance of rail workers to the safety-cutting drive of the profiteers is bringing this question to a head and shining a spotlight on the many failings of the privatised rail industry.
They are to be congratulated for forcing the issue once more onto the political agenda.