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Rail transport: Overpriced, overcrowded, underinvested
THE NEW, fast, Eurostar rail service between St Pancras international station and Paris opened on 14 November. But, says MARK PICKERSGILL, most of Britain's rail system is old, expensive and overcrowded.
BRITAIN'S TRANSPORT system is a complete shambles. Increased private car ownership has put nearly 30 million cars on our already snarled-up roads but the latest fuel price rise is making travel by car or bus more expensive.
The government received almost £42 billion in the year 2005 from fuel duty, VAT on fuel and road taxes, but spent only £6.7 billion on improving roads.
Travelling by rail would be the obvious answer but Britain's trains are amongst the most overpriced and overcrowded in the world. The railways carried as many passengers last year as they did in the late 1950s but with only half the network available, the rest having been destroyed in cuts over the past 50 years.
Rail privatisation has been a total disaster. In the first seven years of privatisation the private rail network received £10.7 billion in various government subsidies while paying out hundreds of millions of pounds in shareholder dividends.
These train operating companies (TOCs) are virtually asset-free; they lease their trains from separate companies. Also the cost of maintaining and upgrading the rail infrastructure – the most expensive part of running a railway – is met by public money since Railtrack was taken over by government-backed Network Rail.
And yet, although train fares will almost certainly rise again next year, these same TOCs received £2 billion in government subsidies last year. The present rail network gets more subsidy money than the publicly owned British Rail did in its final years.
Railtrack and Metronet (who were responsible for maintaining part of London Underground) have been bailed out with billions of pounds of public money. One Metronet boss was given a £500,000 pay-off.
Public money underwrites virtually every major rail infrastructure project, including Crossrail and the St Pancras Channel Tunnel rail link.
ALTHOUGH BRITAIN still lags behind the rest of Europe in high-speed rail travel, there are no plans to build any more high speed lines. The idea of being able to travel directly from cities such as Birmingham and Manchester to Paris was scrapped after British Rail was privatised.
Much of Britain's rail network is over 150 years old, so maintaining and upgrading requires massive amounts of capital. But private rail firms' cost-cutting led to the Hatfield and Potters Bar disasters.
Between 1992 and 1997, the number of people employed on Britain's railways fell from 150,000 to 92,000 and the number of workers maintaining the infrastructure fell from 31,000 to 19,000.
The last Tory government and this New Labour one have been driving towards more privatisation within the public sector. Millions of pounds have been creamed off the privatised rail and bus networks by get rich quick 'entrepreneurs' by way of vast subsidies and Private Finance Initiative schemes.
Private ownership brings many problems. The new high-speed Channel Tunnel line has been part-financed by the private sector, which demands a return on its investment. The cost of using the tracks will be high – around £2,000 per train for just 67 miles. These high costs will push up fares and also mean that the new wonder line will be used by only a fraction of the 20 trains an hour it is designed to handle!
Any modern transport system has to be continually maintained and upgraded. But if it is privately owned, then the prime motive is to increase dividends at the expense of investment.
Socialists call for the bus and rail networks to be taken back into public ownership with vast amounts of funds being made available to be invested in a cheap and fully integrated transport system. This would also be a step towards reducing pollution and the 'carbon footprint' by encouraging more people to use public transport.
In The Socialist 22 November 2007:
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