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From The Socialist newspaper, 8 January 2020

Northern Rail franchise in question: nationalise the railways!

Northern Rail train, photo El Pollock/CC

Northern Rail train, photo El Pollock/CC   (Click to enlarge)

Sally Griffiths, Manchester and Salford Socialist Party

The Tories' announcement that they are likely to revoke Northern Rail's franchise referred to Northern's service being "completely unacceptable." That's true.

However, it is not just workers in the north who are suffering under the privatised 'service'. It's a Britain-wide issue.

Transport should be a public service, but the Tories and New Labour have made it a commodity. The Tories started it; New Labour completed it; the European Union assisted both with its privatising rail directives.

Passengers and workers face overcrowding, delays, fare increases, safety compromises and ticket complexity hidden behind the facade of 'customer choice'. Choice? One operator monopolises each route! When standing on a platform, often with no ticket office, we have no choice.

Fares have risen twice as fast as wages since 2009. As a proportion of wages, they are now five times what passengers in the rest of Europe pay on average. European state-owned companies run many of Britain's private franchises, and dividends from these operations are reinvested into their own country's transport systems.

In 2001, Britain's privatised track owner Railtrack paid 137 million in dividends, funded by government subsidies. The same year, Railtrack went into administration, and the government had to renationalise it the next year, after the shareholders had made off with their millions.

East Coast Main Line

Conversely, the East Coast Main Line went into public ownership in 2009, and was then a success - with 94% customer satisfaction, and returning 1 billion to the Treasury. It was the most effective franchise in Britain, taking only 1% of the line's income in subsidy compared with the average of a staggering 32%.

Rail freight charges have put trucks back on the road, increasing pollution and congestion. Since privatisation we have seen virtually no further electrification of the system. And removing the costs of fragmentation, owners' dividends, and private borrowing, could allow a big increase in service and reduction in fares.

Andy Burnham, the Blairite mayor of Greater Manchester, has stated the Greater Manchester Combined Authority will bid to be operator of Northern Rail. It's possible that could keep the private profiteers out. But unless the combined authority is prepared to defy the government and fight for sufficient investment in the service, it would end up being blamed for shortcomings.

British Rail was far from perfect. On nationalisation, like in the coal industry, the original bosses stayed in place, and the required investment wasn't given. A recent report concluded "If British Rail had received the same funds (as the current franchise operators) we would have a gold-plated British Rail."

A publicly owned rail industry should instead be run under democratic workers' control and management. Control by workers and passengers could guarantee enough staffing, training and infrastructure with the political will to make our transport systems operate for people and the environment.

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