Fed up with poor service and soaring fares, increasing numbers in Britain are calling for the railways to be re-nationalised. And astonishingly, that’s what is happening. Except not in the way any worker in Britain would want...
Amazingly, more and more of Britain’s train and bus companies are moving out of the private sector, and into the public sector. Even more incredible is the fact that it is not the British public sector they are joining, but those of France, Germany and the Netherlands.
Last month, in an article on energy supply, Workers exposed the fact that German, French and Spanish companies are dominating the British energy market, treating the British people as a captive colonial market. There are notable parallels with the provision of public transport in Britain.
The Netherlands State Railways has just won the franchise to operate services in East Anglia out of London Liverpool Street. DB, the German state railway, has just purchased open access operator Grand Central which runs train services on the East Coast route from Sunderland and Bradford to London.
Both the above railway companies are now running many of Britain’s bus services. In London, they have been joined by RATP, the Paris municipal transport authority. There is seemingly no end to this trend, with French national rail operator SNCF looking to increase its involvement in Britain’s railways; both it and the Dutch are shortlisted for in a race to the bottom to take over Virgin’s West Coast franchise at the end of 2012. The Danish and Spanish railways are also busy preparing to enter the fray.
Here comes the state sector: Germany’s. Picture shows a DB train in Stuttgart in July 2010, just a month before German State Railways finalised its takeover of Arriva.
Photos (this page and cover): Tupungato/Shutterstock.com
So why isn’t this takeover of our public transport system by foreign public transport operators more obvious, and widely known about? The answer lies in the fact that they are using pseudonyms to operate here. SNCF is known in Britain as Keolis, and Dutch State Railways is Abellio. The Germans have taken over British company Arriva, and all their passenger operations are now part of that “division” of DB. It is rumoured that the Spanish will either bid in partnership with or take over another ‘British’ company National Express, now dominated by Spanish shareholders.
Why is this happening? Principally for two reasons, both associated with the European Union’s obsession with the market and “liberalisation”.
In the 1990s, the Thatcher and Major governments in Britain zealously encouraged the EU’s diktats on breaking up and privatising the railways. These were largely ignored by the rest of Europe. Private bus companies that emerged from the breakup of Britain’s publicly owned National Bus Company ten years earlier were best placed to take part in the feeding frenzy following rail privatisation, companies like National Express, Stagecoach and First Group.
Meanwhile, western Europe’s national railway operators have metamorphosed into giant multi-national transport corporations, preparing for the increasing EU-driven liberalisation of the railways to come. These companies have clearly been made ready for privatisation, but the recent economic crisis has apparently put governments off for now. The relatively small British bus companies are no match for these massive corporations, and it is thought that the takeover of Arriva by DB will be followed by another feeding frenzy as the bus companies are gobbled up by the big rail corporations.
And like the rest, DB is not just interested in railways – it runs buses, trams and metros across Europe, and a huge logistics organisation (DB Schenker) which is the biggest rail freight company in Britain.
Recently, it has become clear that the German government has given DB a clear steer that any profits made from its “extra-curricular” activities in Britain and elsewhere are to be used to invest in German railway services. This means British workers travelling on DB’s careworn and overcrowded trains here, paying some of the highest fares in Europe, will be contributing to more new trains in Germany!
And DB is certainly ripping off the British passengers. The recent average 6 per cent fares increase authorised by the government disguised some scandalous increases on DB’s Cross Country franchise, which runs the length of the country. Not only did they put the prices of ticket types up, but they changed the validity of cheaper walk-on fares. Unless you want to arrive after 7pm in the evening, the Plymouth to Edinburgh standard class return fare rose from £178 to over £350. It has become much cheaper to travel via London for such journeys rather than to take the hourly through service.
Most passengers of course don’t realise they are travelling with foreign train or bus companies, hiding behind a convenient pseudonym.
Threat to buses
Buses are the most frequently used form of public transport, and around 123,000 people are employed in the bus industry. However, government funding cuts are now putting many of Britain’s bus services in jeopardy.
The government is cutting 28 per cent of the money it gives to local authorities for public transport, with some rural counties losing perhaps 50 or even 100 per cent of their council-funded bus services. Other councils are cutting all weekend and evening services. In many areas concessionary fares schemes for young people and for free bus pass holders during peak hours are being withdrawn.
The government doesn’t have to withdraw free travel for pensioners – there won’t be many buses left to use! Council supported bus cuts are being made at a time when commercial bus services are also being hit hard by the cuts.
A 20 per cent cut in the fuel tax rebate for buses will come into force in 2012. This will combine with changes to the formula used by councils to calculate the way companies are reimbursed for carrying bus pass holders. These formula changes will mean another £100 million in funding being lost from the bus network.
In response, Unite and RMT are supporting the Campaign for Better Transport’s Save Our Buses campaign.
Not to be outdone by the ConDem government, the SNP-led Scottish ‘government’ has issued a consultation paper on the future of Scotland’s railways that seems to be trying to outdo the sort of draconian measures envisaged in the McNulty “Value for Money” report published last year, which the Westminster government is still considering.
It envisages breaking up the existing Scotrail franchise to allow operators to milk the profitable routes, operators like Stagecoach whose leader Brian Souter has donated millions of pounds to the SNP. Future private franchisees would have carte blanche to set whatever fare levels they wish on these routes and to introduce smartcards, which will undoubtedly rip off Scottish travellers as they have in London.
Stations could be destaffed, outsourced, or closed altogether. Scottish sleeper services could face the axe. Guards would be removed from trains, and ticket offices closed.
The more barmy suggestions are that services from England be forced to terminate at Edinburgh instead of providing through trains to Inverness, Aberdeen and Dundee, and that stations will not need toilets or washrooms if the trains stopping at that station have those facilities.
The RMT has commented that “it is worth noting that all of these additional concessions are being proposed for a franchise that paid dividends of £18 million in 2010, £18 million in 2009, £17 million in 2008 and £21 million in 2007. In two of these years Scotrail actually paid more in dividends than it made in profit, leading to the obvious conclusion that because it does not contribute anything towards investment in the railway or rail infrastructure, and with the level of government subsidy even covering its track access charges, it is simply asset stripping Scotland’s railway. The proposals from the Scottish Government allow for the intensification of this theft.”
The government has at least given a stay of execution to the threatened last train-building factory in Britain, Bombardier’s Derby plant. Exactly 1,000 days after the last firm train order was made, Bombardier received an order for 130 new electric train vehicles, worth £188 million. This work will keep the much reduced workforce going for nearly two years, but is a fraction of the Thameslink order for 1,300 vehicles that would have secured the long-term future for Derby.
The Thameslink contract has still not been signed with preferred German bidders Siemens, and has become more and more mired in controversy. The RMT recently demanded that the government reverse the decision to award Siemens the contract after it emerged that their bid was priced in euros. With the 10 per cent decline in the value of the currency since tendering, the cost to the British taxpayer on the £1.4 billion contract has soared by £140 million.
The fight continues to defend Britain’s train manufacturing capacity. ■