RMT protest July 2012, photo Paul Mattsson

RMT protest July 2012, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Renationalise the railways now!

On 19 January 1993, John Major’s Tory government passed the British Coal and British Rail (Transfer Proposals) Act which led to the splitting up and privatisation of British Rail.
Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, spoke to the Socialist about the state of the railways 20 years on.

What do you think of the railways today compared to the last days of British Rail, and what are the solutions?

They are a rip-off and a disgrace, what used to be a public service has been turned into a money-making racket for a gang of spivs and speculators from the private Train Operating Companies.

The taxpayer subsidy has tripled and more than a billion pounds a year is being robbed out of the railways in private profit. There is only one solution, full and total renationalisation.

What would the implementation of the McNulty report mean for rail workers and passengers?

It would turn our railways into a criminals’ paradise and would compromise public and staff safety throughout the network.

Throwing the guards off the trains and axing station staff would be a disaster waiting to happen. McNulty, set up under a Labour government, is about cutting costs while ring-fencing profits.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that it’s a reckless gamble that ignores the real reason why our railways cost more – fat dividends for rail company shareholders.

How do you think the trains could be renationalised?

We now have nearly 70% public backing for full renationalisation since the West Coast Mainline fiasco.

It could be done easily, as each franchise comes up you take it back in house, just like what happened on East Coast.

You also stop the corporate welfare of bunging the train operators public subsidy when they fail to hit their profit targets. They would soon chuck the keys back.

Labour’s position on the railways has been a disgrace and of course John Prescott played a major role in keeping the train companies on the gravy train when Labour was in office.

They are terrified of big business, but of course we support those pushing for them to side with the British people rather than the rip-off merchants on this issue.

Is there a difference between how British Rail was run and your idea of renationalised rail?

You have to have one organisation, publicly owned and publicly accountable. That is the bottom line. Once you end the current fragmentation and profiteering, costs will fall and money sucked out of the system can be reinvested in infrastructure, fleet, operations and safe staffing levels.

It’s dead simple. British Rail achieved just that and of course the world has moved on since it was smashed up but the principle remains the same. Frankly, if the EU don’t like it then that’s tough luck.

Why did you support the POA’s resolution 5 at the 2012 TUC congress, calling for the TUC to look at how a general strike can be organised?

There is hardly any group of workers that hasn’t taken a battering under this government. It’s pure common sense to link the struggles rather than fighting our own corners.

It would scare the life out of the bunch of chancers who have seized power without any democratic mandate to sack workers, drive down wages and smash up public services.

Why do you support the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition?

Because it does what it says on the tin without any of the baggage and big-business agenda of the main political parties. Who else you gonna vote for?

Bob Crow, general secretary RMT, addresses the National Shop Stewards Network lobby of the TUC 11 September 2011 , photo Paul Mattsson

Bob Crow, general secretary RMT, addresses the National Shop Stewards Network lobby of the TUC 11 September 2011 , photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

‘Rebuilding Rail’ shows need for unified public train operator

An Aslef rail union member

Researchers Dr Ian Taylor and Dr Lynn Sloman, funded by the railway trade unions, interviewed a cross-section of people involved in the industry to produce Rebuilding Rail for the Transport for Quality of Life group.

The participants include such diverse views as those of Lord (Andrew) Adonis a former (unelected) Labour Transport Secretary, and Bob Crow and others from the RMT union, and leading figures from the Aslef union.

Any attempt to map out a future for the rail industry is to be welcomed but a comprehensive plan should involve the experience, expertise and proposals of the workforce themselves and the travelling public.

The authors claim that the current franchising system has failed all the major tests – failing society as a whole, the economy and the environment.

They say that £1 billion could be saved annually for the benefit of wider society, by removing the profit motive.

The cost of running the railway has increased since privatisation when Tory propaganda said costs would fall.

Fares have risen 50% in ten years, and are up to ten times higher than in other parts of Europe. A rail season ticket is a major item of expenditure.

Freight charges have played a part in discouraging more freight on rail. A senior accounting lecturer at the University of Essex, John Stittle, offers the following view: “The state is putting an awful lot in. If British Rail had the same funds now we would have a gold-plated state railway.”

Clearly some increase in costs resulted from more services being run and catch-up expenditure on infrastructure which was neglected.

Even so, privatisation has seen virtually no increase in electrification which benefits reliability and the environment.

Costs of privatisation

Costs, which the authors say would be cut out by public ownership, include Network Rail debt interest which would be less expensive to the government, fragmentation costs, profits for contractors at various levels, and rewards for investors.

Removing these costs could lead to an 18% reduction across all fares, rather than the 6% increase introduced this month.

It is estimated that 5% of Train Operating Companies’ costs are caused by their interface with Network Rail, and that between 300 and 500 rail workers are engaged in delay attribution (identifying reasons for delays). The industry guide to delay attribution runs to 90 pages.

When maintenance work was brought back in-house by Network Rail, the savings were £264 million a year.

Renewals and enhancements to infrastructure are still outsourced with profits estimated at £200 million a year.

The small number of companies which own trains and lease them to the Train Operating Companies are hugely profitable, one estimate is that profits before tax and interest are 41% of income.

But the case against privatisation is not solely based on avoidable costs. There is effectively no competition in the privatised railway. There is hardly ever a real choice because one franchise has an effective monopoly.

Overcrowding is now a major concern for travellers with implications for safety. The rush hour becomes crush hour and the festive season a battle to find a seat.

Ticket purchasing can be very complex and the lack of cooperation between service providers means passengers can be stranded.

There is increasing pressure from firms to cut ticket office and station staff – more potential travellers are discouraged and turn to the car.

The promised electrification between Manchester and Liverpool will use quarter-century old trains, such is the lack of a viable UKbased train building capacity.

Section six of Rebuilding Rail is a discussion on the objections which supporters of privatisation make to proposals to remove the profit motive and franchise system. These include objections that privatisation means innovation, investment and efficiency, the cost of buying assets back, and the restrictions imposed by European Union law on public ownership.

While these issues can’t be ignored, the main problem to be solved is to develop a movement with the political will to overcome these and other obstacles in the way of returning the rail industry to public ownership, and to introducing for the first time measures to ensure democratic control.


In the part of Rebuilding Rail dealing with “The Solution”, the authors list many aims for the rail industry with which socialists would agree and have been campaigning for.

They point out that “the purpose of the railway system is primarily to provide a public service not private profit”.

Public ownership is therefore the solution – including train operating, infrastructure, rolling stock, etc.

There needs to be a structure to provide integration, expanding capacity, more freight on rail and rail industry manufacturing.

Some other points have not kept pace with reality, eg “devolution to regions and counties” at a time when county councils are withdrawing from doing anything themselves and becoming commissioning bodies handing contracts to private firms.

Interesting figures are given relating to train and rail manufacturing and comparisons of the UK with other European countries, Japan and New Zealand, in terms of public/private ownership, and the rail share of the freight market.

The authors show that “a unified public sector train operator” along with direct public ownership of Network Rail, control of buying and building trains and increased use of freight on rail are necessary and beneficial.

Even so it is clear that every problem would not be solved overnight. The skills shortage in building trains, long-term plans for training enough drivers and guards, improving communications systems would need planning and investment over a period.

But bringing the rail industry into democratic public ownership is not in the end a legal or technical issue, the impression given by some of the arguments in this report. The real problem is political will.

Rail unions, passengers and the wider working class all support renationalisation. We need to build a mass workers’ party that, unlike the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour, will carry out this measure.

Privatised train timetable

January 1993

British Coal and British Rail (Transfer Proposals) Act passed, allowing the break-up of British Rail

November 1993

Railways Act to split British Rail into over 100 companies

April 1994

Break-up and selling off of British Rail starts, including Railtack taking over the infrastructure

May 1996

Railtrack privatised

May 1997

New Labour government elected. Instead of reversing privatisation as promised, completes remaining privatisations

September 1997

Southall rail crash. Train with faulty Automated Warning System passes two cautionary signals and a red signal to collide with freight train. Seven people killed

November 1999

Paddington rail crash after train passes red signal. 31 people killed and 521 injured

October 2000

Hatfield rail crash. Four killed after train goes over broken rail at 115 mph. Cracked rail was known about before the accident

May 2001

Railtrack pays £137 million dividend to shareholders, paid for by subsidy from government

October 2001

Railtrack goes into administration with £580 million cost of railway repairs

October 2002

‘Not for dividend’ Network Rail takes over railway infrastructure

October 2004

Labour conference backs Aslef union motion by two to one to renationalise train operating companies. Labour transport secretary Alistair Darling overrules policy

February 2007

Grayrigg derailment, Cumbria. One killed and 88 injured after West Coast Main Line train goes over faulty points

November 2009

East Coast Main Line renationalised following failure under private hands, leading to improved punctuality and customer satisfaction

May 2011

Sir Roy McNulty’s ‘Rail Value for Money’ report calls for drastic cuts while keeping same privatised rail structure

October 2012

FirstGroup deal to take over West Coast Main Line franchise scrapped due to errors in bidding process, at a predicted state cost of £100 million. Virgin franchise extended for two years

Electrification and the environment

Using electric trains is far more efficient and potentially far better for the environment.

Britain’s first electric line was the City and South London railway in 1890, London’s first deep tube, now part of London Underground’s Northern Line.

Most of the Southern Railway network was electrified between 1923 and 1939. Yet today there are still large parts of the railway yet to be made electric.

A socialist plan for the rails would include electrifying the remaining lines. Of course, this needs to be linked to a socialist plan for renationalised utilities that would replace polluting energy such as coal and gas with renewable sources.

Guaranteed income

Train Operating Companies (TOCs) ‘predict’ their revenue – if a TOC takes less than 98% of that forecast, it gets bailed out by the taxpayer for 50% or 80% (depending on the size of the shortfall) of the missing takings.

In October, it was announced that the annual ‘revenue support’ totalled £451 million, a big chunk of the railways’ annual £4 billion government subsidy (double the subsidy for British Rail).

Socialist nationalisation

British Rail wasn’t perfect – though far better than the mess that exists today. When it was first formed, in 1948, many of the same bosses stayed in place. Regions competed with each other.

The Socialist Party calls for the railways to be renationalised under democratic working class control and management, using the experience and expertise of rail workers and passengers, to run trains as a public service and not a big business cash cow.