Virgin train at Birmingham New Street.
The madness of Britain’s privatised railways was cruelly laid bare by recent government announcements. Huge fare increases from next year, and the appointment of a new operator for the West Coast Main Line from London to Glasgow, highlighted the fact that the railways are being run to maximise profits for private companies rather than being run as a vital public service.
Rail user groups and unions condemned average fare increases of 6.2 per cent from January 2013, with some fares going up by 11 per cent. At a time when salaries are falling in real terms, such massive increases in commuting costs will hit hard-pressed communities and do nothing to boost Britain’s ailing economy. Even some government MPs are getting jittery.
First Group has wrested West Coast from Virgin, winning the race to the bottom in their bid, which promises to make huge payments to the government over the 15-year franchise. The only way it can do so is to make swingeing cuts to staff in order to protect its profit margins. RMT has already warned First that it will defend vigorously the jobs of their members, taking industrial action if necessary.
We were treated to the nauseating sight of the politician's favourite entrepreneur Richard Branson protesting about Virgin having lost the franchise. He failed to mention the fact that had he won, he was planning much the same cull of jobs.
The West Coast is the first franchise to be awarded since the infamous McNulty Report, which advocates reducing costs on the railways by reducing staff and service quality, and jacking up fares. With the government having wholeheartedly accepted the report, recent announcements come as no surprise.
The profiteering private rail companies now receive upwards of three times the public subsidy received by British rail at the time of privatisation in 1994, says railways expert Christian Wolmar. There is growing public support for the campaign to seize back the railways from the grip of privateers and return it to public ownership and control. It is a campaign that has become much more urgent. ■