Colin Smyth: East Coast fiasco should signal the end of the track for rail privatisation

Writing exclusively in the Red Robin, Colin Smyth MSP, Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy, Connectivity and Transport, lays out why the East Coast fiasco should be the end of the track for the failed experiment of rail privatisation.

It’s 25 years since the Railways Act shunted in the great British sell off of our railways - but are we now seeing that privatisation experiment reach the end of the tracks?

After all, in 2009, when then Transport Minister Lord Adonis rescued the private rail services between London, Aberdeen and Inverness by establishing the public sector success story- East Coast Trains- it delivered record passenger satisfaction, engaged the workforce, kept fares down and returned a not too insignificant £1billion for Treasury.

But when in private hands the franchise failed not once, but three times and this week -through gritted teeth - UK Transport Secretary Chris Grayling hauled the East Coast mainline back under public control. It may fall short of a ringing endorsement by the Tories for nationalisation – but this rail u-turn is a grudging acceptance that when it comes to our trains, there is a growing view that markets may not always be king.

It’s a view shared by passengers who back public ownership in poll after poll and you can see why. Here in Scotland we have a great train robbery taking place where fares are rocketing above wages, passengers stand on a platform not knowing if their train will even stop and new trains are already running late, before they’ve even been built.

Commuters were told that higher fares would fund investment. But projects such as the electrification of the Edinburgh to Glasgow line are running late and millions over budget and Scotrail are being hit by record fines for failing to hit two-thirds of their performance targets. With passengers paying more to travel on increasingly overcrowded and unreliable trains, it’s little wonder they want real change and that’s what Labour offers.

Labour’s starting point is to be clear just what our railways are for- To connect people and goods to support a vibrant economy and thriving society. That may seem simple, but the reality is, under privatisation public transport has become detached from public service. Our trains and buses are used as an opportunity for profit by the mish mash of private companies when they are actually essential services, that Government has to step in to save when the private firm fails.

The mainly foreign owned- or ironically foreign state owned- companies use the profits they get from British taxpayers to keep prices down back home- while presiding over rising rail ticket prices in Britain. As commuters pay more and more, the dividends paid to shareholders of the private train companies rise and rise.

Labour’s proposals would put an end to Britain’s rip-off railways. As each private rail franchise comes to an end, we would bring them back under public ownership. Recent TUC research showed that bringing franchises which expire from 2016 to 2020 back in house would save up to £604 million a year by 2020 across the UK. Imagine if that was re-invested in better services and to hold fares down?

Scottish Transport Minister Humza Yousaf recently said he had a “difference of opinion” with me on public ownership. He doesn’t support it. He says those who do, have a “nostalgic view of the railways”. But Labour’s proposals aren’t a return to some 20th century model of nationalisation, but a modern 21st century vision of public, democratic ownership that puts passengers, not profits first. A vision where workforces will be the managers of change, not its casualties; where our public services serve the people, not the profiteers and where we have a joined up transport system that helps our economy, not hinders it.

It’s time for the Scottish Government to get on board with that vision. To stop acting as a cheerleader for privatisation and unite with Labour to fight for a railway system that delivers for the many, not the few.

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