THE BLOG

There Is a Popular, Practical and Uncostly Way to Fix Our Railways... So What's the Delay?

09/01/2015 09:26 GMT | Updated 10/03/2015 09:59 GMT

It's become a sort of perverse holiday tradition, the festive rail fare hike coinciding with most folk's first day back at work.

This year the Government capped regulated fares at 2.5%. 'Tis election season after all, and prices have already soared by more than 20% under the Coalition.

But rail profiteers' couldn't have all their fun spoiled. So unregulated fares, like off peak leisure tickets, were upped by as much as they pleased.

Not to worry. In the spirit of Good Will, companies agreed (a rare phenomenon) to implement some transparency measures. Just so we can appreciate how fully we're being fleeced, ticket machines are apparently to flag how much cheaper a fare would have been if we'd gone to the ticket office or pre-booked online. Frankly, the politer thing would be to simply not rip us off.

In my own constituency, a daily London commute from Brighton now costs over £4,400 a year. That's 17% of the average salary, and a price hike of £745 under the Coalition.

And what bang for our buck? Cramped trains and poor services. Last year, according to Southern Rail, not one single 07:29am Brighton-London Victoria train reached its destination on time.

We need to rethink our railways. There is a way - a practical, viable and efficient way - to fix them. We should bring franchises back into public hands as they fail or expire.

To do so, we must first acknowledge our railways are a social, economic and environmental investment.

They were sold off with enticing promises of cheaper fares, faster trains and improved services. Business expertise and investment, we were told, would transform the sector*.

But the investment never came. To the contrary, private train operators have benefited from far more public subsidy than British Rail ever did - to the tune of several billion pounds a year (peaking at £7.3billion in 2006-7).

Yet, despite our wallets propping them up to such a degree, these same companies turn over up to 90% of their operating profits to shareholders.

In a nutshell, we pay extortionate fares for often terrible services, and then foot the bill for private sector failures.

A public system would cost too. But it would cost less - £1bn a year less. And that money could be re-invested to improve our services and reduce fares, rather than filling shareholder pockets.

Last month, the Government announced it would re-privatise the East Coast Mainline - a move that defied all business (and common) sense. In the five years it's been run by the public sector, East Coast has returned nearly £1billion to the taxpayer. In public hands, it was vastly cheaper to run: according to a Compass report last year, receiving £0.46 of government funding per passenger per mile - compared to the £4.57 on the private West Coast. It increased passenger numbers, introduced a new timetable, improved punctuality and established industry leading approaches to waste recycling and carbon emissions reduction.

Our railways maintain a healthy economy and society. They keep businesses running and families close. They're a vital public service and must be treated as such.

Gradually de-privatising is common sense, practical and uncostly. It's also what the majority of the public wants.

So, what's blocking it?

Well yes, there are the blatant vested interests of Government. Take the Rail Delivery Group (RDG). The private Train Operating Companies sit on this panel - so, private firms, with profit-making goals, in the heart of Government, with a direct say in rail policy, at the invitation of - you guessed it, the current Coalition. And yes, a fence-sitting Opposition.

Public ownership isn't, as supporters of privatisation like to wheel out, some rose-tinted throwback to a '70s British Rail. Perfect it was not. But, to be fair (and as someone who remembers its failings) delve into the history and the sums: the system cost less and outperformed its private successors.

Nonetheless this is a call for something new. A public, unified and integrated railway - hardly controversial. The modern, efficient, clean, services enjoyed in other parts of Europe offer us a positive, forward-thinking blueprint.

There are lessons to be learned from British Rail. But the system we once had was undermined, undervalued and underinvested. British Rail didn't fail us - our politicians did. A new approach is needed.

A new rail system should be enjoyed, not endured. It should be accessible to all - financially and physically. Prioritise passengers, not shareholders. Cut bonuses - not staff (and with them their wealth of experience and knowledge). It should be truly public - with staff and users participating in decision-making.

Our fragmented system doesn't work. The separation of track and wheel is madness. A new rail system should be fully reunified - and half measures don't deliver.

There are individual Labour MPs on the backbenches who back a public railway. But it seems the Leadership lacks the confidence to back them: Ed Miliband would only invite public operators to compete against private companies for lucrative rail contracts.

The proposal is a fudge. Through it, millions would be wasted in bureaucratic bidding wars and our railways would remain, quite literally, in pieces. We need to fully, transparently, commit to unifying our railways in public hands.

Come down off the fence, Mr Miliband, and show some vision: you'll be welcomed. Back the public, and back the Bill to give us a reliable public railway to be proud of.

*Roughly 60% of our railways are run by foreign state-owned companies

Caroline Lucas is the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion

Caroline's Railways Bill is due its Second Reading this Friday