SPECIAL REPORT: Brexit is a Signal of Alarm for the Railways
Brexit and the campaign to renationalise Britain’s ailing railways is on track to create a pretty drastic collision, but there's still time to stop it.
British Rail was privatised under an EU directive, back in 1993/4. The RMT Union was a vocal supporter on the left for leaving the EU, on the grounds that the European Economic project is a vehicle for privatisation and this in turn hurts workers and harms working conditions. A simple truth is that Brussels is a vehicle for advancing highly neoliberal economic ideologies through a bloated, technocratic bureaucracy, which entrenches and promotes privatisation. The ideologies which lay behind Brexit are distinctly anti-worker and anti-public service. Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg are never going to argue in favour of creating a responsible, socially centred, localised and compassionate society. The EU economic project creates barriers for a unified National Transport Service run co-operatively for public service, rather than competitively for private profit.
However, the other core element of the EU, the EU social project, encompasses many things we would naturally support; freedom of movement, upholding civil and human rights, the working time directive (which limits the working week to 48 hours and ensures paid holiday) and creating an order of peace unseen in all of Europe’s history. It’s a shame that we can’t keep the social project and bin the economic greed which is destroying both country and railway.
If we really do leave the EU, what will ‘taking back control’ of our railways look like? Surely the simplest definition of ‘taking back control’ is the renationalisation of Britain’s railway. Out with the foreign owned franchises, in with a publically owned railway, run for Britain, with profit staying in Britain, to reinvest back into the network.
Lifting the lid on rail franchising requires some careful manoeuvring, particularly with language. Exercising the smallest amount of common decency means of course that nationality alone is not the foundation of an insult. Because someone is born French, German, Dutch, Chinese or whatever, it does not make them any worse or better than ourselves. We’re all human.
It’s successive British governments, not the EU which have gifted us our present woes of timetable chaos, expensive ticketing and terrible service.
Therefore, it is not these foreign state owned subsidiaries, such as German owned Deutsch-Bahn (DB) operating the Northern franchise, or Dutch owned Abellio running Greater Anglia that are to blame simply because they are foreign, it is the system which has created, allowed and sustained such power and governance structures to exist which is at fault.
The presence of these EU member state operators within our system shows us that it is not so much the EU which is at fault, but the wholesale and overenthusiastic adoption of free marketism by the centre and right wing governments from Thatcher in 1979 to the present day. Centrist New Labour had the landslide to change the broken system but fell back on its 1997 manifesto pledge to end privatisation on the railway. It’s successive British governments, not the EU which have gifted us our present woes of timetable chaos, expensive ticketing and terrible service. Other EU nation states have held on to their state systems and with it, lower fares and considerably less disjointed transport systems.
The case of DB is perfect. They maintained state operation throughout the 1990s, kept their operations intact from the fragmentation of privatisation (until 2012, when latest tranche of EU marketisation kicked in) yet exploited the weaknesses of other state operations, with subsidiaries not just in Britain, but across Europe. When John Major’s Conservative government began enthusiastically carving up British Rail, DB pounced upon the new franchises and has been operating trains in Britain for nearly as long as privatisation has been in existence. At first they were coy about advertising their presence, hiding behind corporate branding, namely the sudo-company Arriva (which has at various points run trains in the North and Wales) but these days, bright red freight locomotives adorn the same liveries as you’d expect to see in Frankfurt or Berlin, plastered with big white ‘DB’ letters.
The siphoning of millions of pounds of profits out of the British railway system since Major’s Conservative government privatisation of 1993/4 has been well documented. The most prevailing rationale at the time was that BR’s subsidy from government was too much, that competition and the private sector could do it better. We now arrive at a situation where, in real terms, government subsidies for rail are more than they were at the time of privatisation. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if the private rail firms are turning a profit and paying shareholders, that the government is in effect using the railways as nothing more than a complex financial mechanism to transfer public wealth to private hands and when these private hands are foreign state-owned subsidiaries, our ever rising fares end up keeping theirs down.
neoliberal ideologies of the ‘Chicago School’ of Economics, the driving force of free market neoliberalism, is the bedfellow of both the Brexit campaign and the EU economic project.
And after all the fancy accounting and money shunting, we have lost our world leading rail research and development programme at Derby and train manufacturing in the UK is a shell of what it once was. For all the theoretical pounds saved by the ‘efficiency’ of competition, what was the real cost for all those lost jobs and a decimation of these rail sectors? Was the EU really to blame for this? Of course it wasn’t.
So when we explore the ownership of Britain’s rail franchising, it is not to use nationality as an insult, but really to show how the neoliberal ideologies of the ‘Chicago School’ of Economics, the driving force of free market neoliberalism, is the bedfellow of both the Brexit campaign and the EU economic project. Leave one, get the same with the other. The ‘protest’ voters of Brexit will not be appeased but Aaron Banks, Nigel Farage and the crooks bankrolling the misleading Brexit campaign will be rubbing their hands together in glee at the firestorm of deregulation that a collapsed UK economy can bring. It’s the shock doctrine in action.
Quite simply, Brexit represents protectionism and the sovereign right of a country to set its own tariffs and control its own borders (although with regards to borders, anyone making a journey through mainland Europe to the UK would think that was already the case with our array of controls and biometric scanning and the like). The EU represents free trade with tariff free, control free borders within the economic area. Free trade or protectionism. That’s your choice within the narrow paradigm of the mainstream political narrative of Brexit. Robert Tressel wrote of this same game playing out over 100 years ago in the iconic novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Cameron’s legacy was to push voters into this narrow, polarised channel, presented as a choice but in truth it was anything but a shining light of informed, educated, democracy. And having ‘won’ the referendum, the Brexit campaign wishes to freeze democracy in time at the announcement of the results in June 2016, belligerently ignoring all fact and reason after this time which has now significantly changed and informed opinion. Without wishing to traumatically paraphrase New Labour, there is a third way.
That third way is in a nutshell, is represented by a word which makes otherwise sane and rational people enter into a frenzy of irrational behaviour. It’s a word which has many interpretations, many offshoots and sometimes some dark chapters. But at its core, the word represents love, truth, justice and equality. The word is Socialism. And this author argues we need a progressive, forward thinking branch of Socialism, enriched with pragmatism. Socialism doesn’t mean Communism, which is one of those dark chapters where the love, truth and justice was violently obliterated and also one which causes much irrational reactionary behaviour instead of understanding. We have this great mistake to learn from and move beyond it. Socialism doesn’t always create dull, repressive and highly centralised state. It can stand for highly creative and dynamic localism, for entrepreneurialism and innovation too.
And our railways, just like our society in general needs a bloody good injection of love, truth, justice, equality, localism, entrepreneurialism and innovation. You don’t have to look far to see the stench of low wages within our stagnant and rigged economy, where immoral exploitative behaviour on the part of some very, very rich and powerful interests in this country goes unchallenged because it has been normalised, because it is technically ‘legal’. There isn’t just an appetite for change anymore because people have begun to literally starve for it. Leaving the EU will not feed this hunger.
"...it is widely believed that the government is secretly propping up many operators because it cannot afford for them to fail."
We need a delicate balance of centralised strategic oversight mixed with local accountability. At the moment, it is nigh on impossible to hold the train operating companies to account. Sure you can get a refund on your ticket if your train is late, delayed or cancelled, but when the service takes a nosedive like its done on Greater Anglia, when the refunds begin to feel like little recompense for ruined careers and home lives, what controls are there to hold those at the top to account? None! And would an exit from the EU be likely to give the greater public accountability we so desperately need? Its highly doubtful.
A recent editorial in Railnews highlighted how the Department of Transport (DfT) are shrinking to a trickle the amount of publically accessible data on the flow of money between the DfT and franchise holders. This used to be available in the public interest but is now deemed ‘commercially sensitive’. Thankfully the ORR continues to publish similar information, showing us that the privatised railway still cost us over £4 Billion in 2016/17. Its all rather convenient. One reason is that it is widely believed that the government is secretly propping up many operators because it cannot afford for them to fail. Throughout the recent and Guards’ disputes – thankfully resolved on Greater Anglia but still ongoing on many other routes – it is common belief amongst those in the industry that government money has been funding the efforts to break strikes and compromise the safety of the railway in the name of profit and maintaining the status quo.
Chris Grayling, Secretaty of State for Transport has become a veritable professional snake oil salesman with Teflon shoulders and is a master of pointing the finger of blame all too readily, yet still refuses to accept that responsibility for the failings of the recent timetables changes is ultimately his fault. With a dose of irony, he unintentionally blames the franchising system for the failings of late by singling out state-owned Network Rail and sidelining the Train Operating Companies which work with NR to produce the timetable. Those working in timetable planning within the industry bemoan how few resources are allocated to such a vital sector of the railway industry and the endless to-ing and fro-ing between NR and the operators is extremely disjointed and wasteful.
As is often the way, it all too often looks like a case of deliberate degradation and managed decline, as it is the long term wish of the DfT under the Conservatives to privatise Network Rail. Recently Network Rail has been split into devolved ‘routes’, which marry roughly with existing franchises, making it much easier to split off and privatise these routes so that a single company can be angled in to take over operation of both tracks and trains. All this of course has nothing to do with ‘taking back control’, which really shows the whole Brexit charade for the farce that it is. Its smoke and mirrors.
Gearing up to privatise Network Rail and sell it off to regional franchise operators is the boldest move so far by the Conservatives during their eight year tenure in office to ‘reform’ the railways. A company tasked with running its own rolling stock, track, signals and maintenance with the profit motive at its core is a cause for extreme alarm. ‘Taking back control’ looks likely to be more of the same medicine, more disjointed laissez faire policy with no strategic oversight. We already need more regulation within the current order to control the vulture like venture capitalists which are encircling Britain in search of a quick profit, especially if a hard Brexit leaves Britain begging the US for a Free Trade Deal. In a post-Brexit world where regulation is going to be under threat from a witch hunt to cut back red tape, there’s a serious concern that the hard-right pushing this agenda are well on track to endanger railway and passenger safety.
So how to tip the balance? Writing in the Guardian, Hilary Wainwright proposes that we need not look away from Europe, but look deeper into it. She argues that Labour’s 2017 manifesto needs to be applied Europe wide. Look beyond the financial institutions, the Chicago School Economics, the centrist and right wing politicians, beyond the virus of corruption which has become normalised. We need to look to the worker, to the citizen. We need a unified, social Europe to deliver a vision that is even bigger than our idea for a National Transport Service. We need a single European rail system. No companies, no myriad of operators. Just one railway, to move people and goods in the most economical and environmentally low impact way possible. It is as simple as it is radical. Imagine the simplicity as a passenger of being able to book a through ticket from Norwich to Nuremburg. Give those who run the railway on the frontlines and those who use it real ownership and greater power to be custodians of our transport systems to deliver a transport network fit for the next century.
Calling out the corrupt structures of privatisation and acknowledging that Brexit will not solve the problems with our railway is the first step. The next step is to look to the future and imagine the world we want to give to our children, what kind of railway should they inherit? We are already compiling a bold vision for Britain’s railways and how we want our railways in Norfolk and East Anglia to function in the future. By listening to the experience of those who work within the industry, by pressing for greater accountability and by sharing our vision, we will get there. If we are to really ‘take back control’, then its high time we took back what is rightfully ours by renationalising the railway. We need to kick the vagabond Brexiteers of the Conservative party out of office and public life and make their divisive politics and privileged wheezing a thing of the past.