STEPHEN HEPBURN: Rail must return to public ownership

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I’ve always believed public transport should be in, well, public not private hands.That common sense view, thinking a public service should be what it says on the tin by being publicly run and owned, is shared by long-suffering rail passengers fed up with being fleeced by Fat Controllers who escape every year with a haul far bigger than Ronnie Biggs and the Great Train Robbers.

Support for renationalisation is consistently high when ticket prices have gone through the carriage roof despite travellers as taxpayers contributing a net £3.5-billion to the privatised industry in the financial year ending in 2015, vastly more than in a British Rail era which gave us far better value for money than this age of greed. Passengers were forced to pay the £222million private train operators distributed in dividends to shareholders. Cash which should’ve reduced fares or improved services instead of rewarding speculators.

In all the political discussions over Labour’s political direction of travel it’s clear that reasserting public control of runaway rail is a vote-winner with Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith, my colleagues vying to sit up front in the cab, both backing public ownership as did our manifesto at the last General Election. Whatever the reasons why Labour lost in the country outside North East England when Ed Miliband was leader, restoring sanity on the tracks wasn’t one of them. In fact it will be central to any winning platform.

The Conservative Party, under new old management with Theresa May, is ideologically trapped by private greed and sustaining the expensive wreckage created by John Major’s disastrous privatisation. Behind the deceitful propaganda you’ll find Traditional Theresa is Tory business as usual.

On rail, Theresa’s Tories remain opposed to state ownership unless that ownership is by a foreign state. The Union flag-waving party hated the East Coast services proving a flying success when the Labour Government ran them publicly after they crashed privately, producing a £1-billion windfall for the public purse. So frightened were the Tories by profitable proof that rail was better in public hands, East Coast was quickly privatised with Virgin’s Richard Branson the frontman speculator for a company which adorns the trains with his logo but is 90% owned by the firm Stagecoach.

Leaving aside the mis-selling of “Virgin” trains, the most glaring contradiction in Tory policy is that foreign state owned train companies are involved in up to three-quarters of the franchises on the privatised British rail network.

Behind the logo of Northern lurks Germany’s Deutsche Bahn. Commuters between London and East Anglia buy their tickets to enrich the Dutch via Abellio. The debacle on Southern which includes services between Brighton and the capital , involves Govia Thameslink Railway. SNCF, the BR of France, is financially involved in the Govia bit of that disastrous consortium.

Labour is the patriotic party championing the national good when we want a public railway in the public interest and the Tories are plastic patriots lining the pockets of foreign governments at the expense of British passengers.

The Tory ideology of public bad, private good unless it’s a foreign public is a bankrupt ideology when the blinkered Conservatives are incapable of learning from what is good elsewhere in Europe.

Across Europe, rail systems are predominately state owned and consistently outperform our services at every turn. In Germany, Italy, France and Spain the rail fares are consistently lower than in the UK.

Independent report after report tells the Government we have one of the worst services in Europe for efficiency and comfort.

The more these operators fail, the more they ride rough shod over workers’ rights as we have seen on Southern while fleecing passengers and taxpayers.

Restoring public ownership, British public ownership, is in the national interest. Public transport under public control is common sense. Perhaps that’s why ideologically-driven Theresa’s Tories are opposed.