Train and trolley. Photo: Public Domain
Train and trolley. Photo: Public Domain

Kris O’Sullivan, train driver

The simple fact is that the UK transport ‘system’ is broken. The word ‘system’ conjures up an idea of organisation or method. But really it is chaos. That is the everyday experience.

Whether you are trying to catch a train to work, a flight home from your holiday, or a bus to the shops, delays and cancellations of all means of public transport are pretty much the rule not the exception.

By many of the metrics that matter to the traveling public – such as frequency, reliability, comfort and safety – our transport system is not fit for purpose. It is in a race to the bottom of quality and efficiency. And that’s without even mentioning the biggest elephant in the room – the cost! The only thing that the UK is leading in at the moment is having one of the most expensive public transport systems (especially rail) in all of Europe.

Rail unions RMT and Aslef have been in industrial disputes with the Train Operating Companies (TOCs). Rail bosses, with the Tory government behind them, want to rip up the pay, pensions, terms and conditions of thousands of workers. The government has been forced to U-turn on ticket office closures. (Read more about the RMT dispute on page 7) 

What or who is the culprit? Well, it’s not you or me! It’s not public transport service users or workers. It’s the chaotic profit-driven system of capitalism we live under, with the profits of a few the starting point instead of the collective good. Instead of a rationally planned and integrated systems there is a messy patchwork of companies all raking in a profit. A variety of companies run buses and coaches. Different companies compete in the skies, and the airports are owned by other companies again.

Railway franchises

On the railways, there are 23 different franchise-owning TOCs, four main freight operating companies, and the track is owned separately by Network Rail, which is an ‘arms-length’ body of the Department of Transport. And then there are the parasitic rolling stock companies, that serve zero purpose apart from leasing trains to the TOCs – not building the trains, not regulating the trains, just leasing them. They make hundreds of millions in profits mainly for monopolies based abroad and banks, while making no real investment into services, personnel or infrastructure.

This for-profit model wreaks havoc. Since the privatisation and deregulation of buses in 1986 and of British Rail in 1993, it has been open season for cowboy operators, siphoning off billions into the back pockets of shareholders and in bosses’ bonuses.

Even the bosses of some TOCs have effectively admitted that the rail franchise system has failed. Some operators, like Virgin and Stagecoach, handed back the keys, others like Northern Rail were taken over by the Department for Transport.

No wonder the TOC managements have been so happy with these new national rail contracts (NRCs), whereby private companies are paid ‘management fees’ by the government to run the services and all the risks are covered by the government. This bailing out has restored the TOCs’ profits to £600 million in 2020-21. Companies that were in the red are now making hundreds of millions of profit, regardless of whether services are late or cancelled. Their income is guaranteed during a strike. According to the RMT, in just one year, Abellio Greater Anglia went from a £300 million loss to a £295 million profit for the year, for example.

In total, public subsidies are currently to the tune of around £6 billion a year, compared to around £1 billion for pre-privatisation British Rail.

As outlined in an RMT report, “The government likes to talk about how it has sunk public money into the railway, but it doesn’t like to talk about the fact that rather than ensure that all that money was spent on the railways, it deliberately chose a funding model designed to restore and boost fat cat profits.’’

Buzzwords like ‘modernisation’ are banded about by the bosses and Tory government. In reality it means the cannibalisation of Britain’s already-archaic rail and road infrastructure. The government demands cuts to rail maintenance of 50%, and to skim billions off National Highways, and councils’ road-repair budgets. There are Roman roads in this country in better condition than my local priority expressway in a major metropolitan city!

Nationalise & democratically plan

The Socialist Party says no more! No more needless competition between profit-grubbing private companies. We campaign for nationalisation, with compensation only on the basis of proven need. Be it road, rail, maritime, air or even micro-mobility (cycle lanes, e-scooters etc), we need an integrated and democratically planned transport system.

We reject the suggestion that the only means of regaining control and ownership from private hands is by buying it back at extortionate rates. Why should we have to sacrifice billions more into the already overflowing pockets of the privatisers? They have done enough wrecking and asset-stripping of our transport system. You wouldn’t expect to pay the burglar to get back items stolen from your house!

We need to integrate different branches of public transport to work in cooperation not competition. Investment and democratic planning would enable the development of a connected transport system that drastically improves access to all, with the potential for a single ticket, multi-service system linking the entire country together, protecting the environment.

That would be a world away from the capitalist idea of taking companies into public ownership temporarily before selling them back to the private sector – where the public sector takes the losses and puts in the investment, and the private sector rakes in the profits.

Socialist nationalisation would also be unlike previous nationalisations, such as British Rail, that were intended to maintain infrastructure for the benefit of capitalism, keeping managers and directors in place from the previous privately owned companies.

Nationalisation under democratic working-class control and management would involve national planning and coordination by a government operating in the interests of the working class. And local and regional bodies made up of elected worker, trade union and service-user representatives, for example, could discuss, debate and plan what transport services working-class communities need.

Enacting a national public works programme could create thousands of well-paid, unionised, green jobs to restore thousands of miles of track, stations and ticket offices on the railway. Restoring, in a way suitable for today’s society’s needs, the massive ‘Beeching’ rollback of infrastructure in the 1960s, which amounted to the loss of 55% of stations, 30% of route miles, and 67,700 British Rail jobs. We could plan to bring back and improve the hundreds of bus routes, coach stations and shelters removed over years due to ‘unprofitability’. 

Free public travel

The Socialist Party campaigns for free public travel. Free public travel on an expanded transport network would drastically cut carbon emissions from traffic congestion, with the added health benefit of reducing pollution, instead of methods such as taxes and restrictions which penalise working-class and poor people.

Alongside a programme of mass council house building, and secure jobs on decent pay, etc, free public transport could be a building block to uplifting millions of working-class people out of poverty by not forcing them to fork out thousands each year for ever-increasing ticket prices.

A socialist transport system would involve a real ‘levelling-up’ programme across the north and rural areas of Britain, by connecting villages, towns and cities in a universal transport system accessible to all communities.

It could also play a massive role in how we could design new and existing urban centres, shaping public spaces and utilities in a more harmonious way. Democratic user and worker input would mean transport facilities being user-friendly, including the removal of hostile infrastructure (such as anti-homeless sloping seats etc).

Eliminating the profit motive, with its wasteful competition and short-termism, would enable the development of technological improvements such as full electrification of the railway or upgrading bus and coach fleets to greener designs and improved accessibility. It would give us an opportunity to explore technologies that could add auxiliary support to local transport, such as ride-share programmes, and community carpooling and taxi services.

Public safety and access for disabled people could become a priority, with well-designed and fully staffed stations, accessible information and support services, and investment in accessible trains, buses, taxis etc.

Socialist nationalisation would ensure good wages, terms and conditions of workers. This includes kicking out the blacklisting operated by railway construction companies, such as Costain-Skanska Joint Venture. A nationalised transport system would only contract companies that pay full trade union rates of pay and proper contracts. But socialists would also campaign for the nationalisation of construction companies too. 

The list could go on, but the crucial point is this is not only vitally necessary but possible.

Many people on the left argue that the UK was able to construct an NHS out of the rubble of post-World War Two Britain, and so we can build a nationalised transport system out of the disorganisation and dysfunction of a privatised 21st century system. But today’s capitalist world is very different from the post-war situation, including the existence of a political alternative to the Tories that could channel the pressure on the capitalist establishment to make concessions.

Today’s capitalism faces economic crisis and instability. But there is no mass working-class political party now championing the fight for a fully public transport system. The basic infrastructure is there and the privatised model is generating massive profits for the few, while the state steps in to prop them up when necessary. 

That’s why working-class people in our trade unions must actively demand nationalisation and take steps to build a party that will fight for it.

We must fight to nationalise the main parts of the economy so we can democratically plan our resources. For a socialist society to replace the system that actively prevents a rational, planned transport system coming into existence.

A socialist society with a democratic transit culture is worth fighting for, to tackle our day-to-day problems now and to begin the collective stewardship of our resources for future generations.

For a transport system for the millions, not millionaires.

High-speed rail

As a railway worker and public transport commuter, I think the potential of high-speed rail is a great achievement of the collective effort of the workers involved. Its planned use on a democratic basis, discussing with local communities and planning the needs of different parts of the country, could have significant environmental impacts, reducing domestic air travel for example.

But HS2, now partially scrapped, was lauded as a poster boy of grand infrastructure projects by capitalist politicians, became a £100 billion money pit, with constant overspending on budgets at every stage going into private pockets, meanwhile local, inner- and inter-city services for cities and towns outside of London are starved of basic resources. It is a vanity project instead of providing the basics of public transport.

Socialists welcome new technology and application that can improve the lives of workers, but instead of capitalist implementation which is all about short-term profit and competition, we focus on the long-term planning of services and resources. That would include democratically working with local communities to safeguard our historic and natural sites and green spaces.

The Socialist Party says:

  • Support the rail workers’ fight to defend jobs, pay, terms and conditions
  • End rip-off ticket prices – free public transport for all, paid for by taking the wealth off the super-rich
  • Stop bosses’ profiteering – nationalise the whole network under democratic workers’ control and management, with no compensation for the fat cats
  • For a democratically planned expansion and upgrade of the whole public transport network, overseen by elected bodies of rail workers, trade union and service users
  • For a new mass party of the working class with a socialist programme based on democratic public ownership of the banks and big business
  • A democratic socialist plan of production based on the interests of the overwhelming majority of people, and developed in a way that safeguards the environment