Poppy Pendolino looks at the situation on Britain’s railways and call for safe and affordable public transport.
In May, the Frankenstein that was privatised British railways finally met its end. Though Keith Williams had been commissioned to write his rail reform report in 2018, it was the COVID-19 pandemic that was the catalyst for the much-needed change; after almost a quarter of a century of mismanagement, union action and blame-game chaos between train operating companies and Network Rail. In the government’s own words: “A quarter-century of fragmentation on the railways will end…” conveniently omitting that it was their own party under John Major who fragmented the system in the first place.
Since this initial shattering, the average price of a train journey has skyrocketed by 48% in real terms (from 1997), according to the Department for Transport, to some of the most expensive in Europe.
Enter Great British Railways, a public body which will integrate the railways, own the infrastructure, collect fare revenue, run and plan the network, and set fares and timetables. Many say this sounds like nationalisation by another name; but it still involves private train operators, who will be paid a fee to run services, with incentives based on passenger satisfaction and reliability.
There lies the true danger: under the new system the taxpayer bears all risk for revenue. The taxpayer also subsidised private rail operators to the tune of more than £12bn during the pandemic, once again proving that the status quo is socialism for corporations, brutal capitalism for individuals. By comparison, the cost for a 10% pay increase for NHS staff would be a measly £3.4bn per year.
Beyond this financial outrage and risk, jeopardy lies in the potential for slow erosion of the rail network as a whole under an incompetent government. Fears of rising fares, falling passenger numbers, underfunding, fewer train services and job losses for staff are all entirely legitimate.
The regional disparity in spending may also worsen; then-transport minister, Rachel Maclean, stated that from 2019-20 there was an average spend of public expenditure of £497 on transport per head for the UK, a tiny £289 per head in the East Midlands, £521 across the South East and a staggering £882 in London. So much for regionally levelling up, and a real slap in the face, particularly for the North East and North West, with £315 and £438 per head respectively, despite suffering some of the worst effects of the disastrous timetable change of May 2018, which was severe enough to bring a premature end to the Northern trains franchise.
Add to this the risk to all other groups traditionally and persistently marginalised by this government. The British Transport Police reported that from 2013-2018, the number of hate crimes reported across transport has doubled, with religious hate crimes increasing almost five-fold, and homophobic hate crimes rising by 200%. Hate crimes toward disabled people traveling on the rail network have risen by 24% in the last three years to 2021. Disability charity Leonard Cheshire revealed in their 2018 research that 50% of stations in Scotland, 40% of stations in England and 32% of stations in Wales do not have step-free access, preventing many disabled people from comfortably using these stations, or using them at all, despite the fact that there are 14.1 million disabled people living in the UK (and rising).
Comfortable, safe, affordable access to public transport is a basic human right, essential to accessing education, healthcare, employment and social opportunities. This is not a right that this government has ever upheld. We should follow the example of Tallinn, Estonia, who made public transport free in 2013, and were already turning a profit of €20 million a year just three years later, through a municipal tax scheme and a population eager to take advantage of this open system. Tallinners gave an early polling response of 90% approval for the scheme.
Against all this, the ever-present danger of climate change looms. Without investment in rail and public transport, affordable fares and clean growth and electrification, the UK will not meet its emissions targets, pushing us ever closer to the dangers of rising sea levels, poor air quality, extreme weather and beyond. At its lowest, rail use fell to just 3% of pre-pandemic passenger levels during the COVID crisis; car use never fell below 20%, and at the time of writing stands at 96%, compared to 58% for rail. Without equal access and fair investment, can Great British Railways resolve this crisis, or buckle the network under the strain?