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6 December 2017

Nationalise rail now

Steve Cawley, Peterborough Socialist Party

For the third time the government is having to save the East Coast Main Line railway from private sector failure. Virgin Trains will stop running the line three years early, in 2020.

First Sea Containers Ltd, then National Express and now Richard Branson. But last time it was publicly owned, the line returned over 1 billion to the public coffers.

Shares in Stagecoach - which runs the line in partnership with Virgin - jumped 13% when the government made the franchise termination announcement. Future payments due to the government from the private operators will be cancelled.

Their profits don't just come from subsidy payments. Track access fees paid by train operators actually fell between 2004 and 2012, for example.

Transport union RMT is balloting members on the line for strike action over Virgin Trains' attacks on conditions and pay. Meanwhile, rail bosses across the country want to cut costs and increase profits by extending 'driver-only operation' - removing the guards' safety-critical function controlling train doors.

Many of us have witnessed or heard of accidents with doors trapping clothing or bags and trains starting to move off. This happened to my partner a few years back on a local Cambridgeshire train. She was lucky that other passengers shouted too, and the driver then stopped.

And rail fares are set for the biggest hike in five years - an average of 3.4% from 2 January, according to the Rail Delivery Group. This increase is well above most commuters' stagnating wages.

Jeremy Corbyn has promised to bring the railways back into public ownership, which is very good. But passengers and rail workers can't just wait for the private franchises to run out, as Corbyn has floated.

The attacks are happening now. And apart from the possible extension of contracts into the dim and distant future, there's also the possibility that bosses may sell or spirit away assets in preparation.

A commitment to public ownership used to be on every Labour Party membership card, pre-Blair. We need to nationalise the whole rail network as a priority - with compensation paid only on the basis of proven need. This need would not apply to billionaires and big companies, whatever the European Court of Justice might say!

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