Hold. The. Front. Page. On Wednesday 16 May, the government announced that the East Coast mainline rail franchise was to be re-renationalised; temporarily, mind. This move is the culmination of decades of wilful ignorance by successive governments, and shows the chaos facing UK infrastructure. But is more nationalisation the answer?
I say “re-renationalised”, lest we forget that the East Coast mainline was previously placed back into public hands in 2009. What followed was a service that, under public ownership, performed quite well. That was until the Tories flogged it off again in 2015 to Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains and Stagecoach.
But in what was as predictable as night following day, a clusterfuck of poor performance, private greed and government smirking began on East Coast. It culminated in both companies shitting themselves about their profit margins, and declaring they would walk away from the contract. The predictable Tory government response? To snivelingly tug at Branson’s apron strings and allow him and Stagecoach off millions of pounds’ worth of financial obligations.
So now, we’ve gone full circle again, with East Coast back “under government control”. Although it’s actually not entirely. What the government is doing is sneakily now trying another, mindless experiment – a public/private partnership operation. I can already see tears before bedtime with this.
But the East Coast franchise is a microcosm of a system suffering abuse, neglect and the most nefarious, financially motivated decision-making imaginable.
I’d call the rail franchising arrangements in the UK ‘zombie privatisation’. That is, private contractors are allowed to shuffle through their contracts, make decisions in a way that resembles brain-dead cadavers, all while rabidly feasting on the flesh of our public transport system. None more so than the contemptible Southern Rail, which lurches from self-induced crisis to self-induced crisis, abusing disabled people along the way. The government’s response? To stand back and applaud like a performing seal when Southern does get something right.
This bullshit really needs to end. If you buy into the idea that a thriving economy needs sound infrastructure for the workers to go about their business productively (as a borderline anarchist, I don’t, but it’s what mainstream politicians would argue), then a failing rail system is not conducive to this. Considering our Conservative government is one of the most employment-driven in the Western world (note the changes to the welfare state), you’d think it would recognise this basic feature of production/service-based economies.
But it doesn’t. Because we have a hyper-corporatist government; that is, one where the lines between big business and big government are so blurred you don’t know where one starts and one ends.
Down with statism
So, the current obsession with zombie privatisation isn’t going to end anytime soon. But is a statist approach (public services under central government control) the right one? Labour, in part, seems to think so as bringing rail back into public hands was one of its key 2017 election pledges [pdf, p90-91], albeit with caveats.
I’m personally not convinced. For me, the days of creaking, nationalised infrastructure are long gone. The last thing we need in the hyper-connected, devoid-of-localism 21st century is more central control.
We need to be refocusing on the things that should bind us together as a society, and a species. One of these things could be our railways; some are already run under community partnerships. An expansion of this programme would give people in their communities a tangible and personal investment in transport, instead of faceless, pseudo-socialists sitting in Whitehall making decisions ‘for the many’.
But none of that will happen anytime soon. So in the meantime, we probably have more rail misery ahead. I suggest you may like to join the excellent Association of British Commuters (ABC), as our railways will probably have a few more problems than just leaves on the tracks.
– Support the ABC, fighting for everyone’s transport rights.
Featured image via the ABC