Can we have ‘the right to travel’ – without adding to climate change?

Transport and the environment

Can we have ‘the right to travel’ – without adding to climate change?

The recent collapse of Metronet, which was responsible for maintenance on some London Underground lines, was just the latest disaster in the saga of public transport privatisation, this one leaving public finances to foot a bill of over a billion pounds.
Pete Dickenson, author of the Socialist Party pamphlet Planning Green Growth, goes through the zig zags and damaging effects of government policy on public transport over decades, and gives the outline of a socialist programme for public transport that would give every person the right and means to travel, without adverse effects on the environment.

When New Labour came to power in 1997 the London tube, along with air traffic control, were all that remained in public hands from a transport sector that had been almost completely nationalised in 1947. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown promised a sustainable, integrated public transport system, but instead implemented the privatisation of the underground and air traffic control and from 2001 massively expanded an environmentally unsustainable road building programme.

When New Labour was in opposition in parliament, it criticised the fragmentation of the rail industry involved in the Tory privatisation of British Rail, that was to lead to the train crash disasters at Paddington and Hatfield. As soon as it got into power though it proceeded to do the same, splitting the operation of the underground four ways, resulting in a massive rip-off of the public that even official bodies were forced to admit to.

The Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons as early as 2005 found that the new structures had lead to years of avoidable delay in modernising the system. At the same time, Transport for London, the overseeing body, complained that: “the real volume of work out on the railway [done by the privatised companies] is not consistent with the payments being made”.

In the 1980s the sell-off of bus services produced a similar ‘sub-optimal market outcome’, or in plain language – a shambles. When the Tories pushed privatisation through they made it explicitly clear (Buses white paper, Dept. of Transport, 1984) that their immediate objective was to undermine the pay and conditions of bus drivers and to do this it would be necessary to break up and privatise the industry.

Unfortunately the leaders of the Transport and General Workers Union at the time did not mobilise the union to prevent this. As a result, pay rates fell to about £5 an hour in 1997, compared to rail workers who were getting £7 an hour by then, after earning similar amounts at the time of bus privatisation.

Hours worked per driver also increased. Both these factors boosted the profits of the bus companies but this did not result in a better service for the public, as shown by a 17% decline in the number of passengers between 1993 and 2003 outside London. There were more buses on the road but service quality went down due to irregular running, vehicle bunching, lack of service coordination and confusion among passengers due to frequent changes, not to mention demoralisation of bus workers caused by the attacks on their pay and conditions.

Although the bus system in London was also privatised, bus use did not fall as elsewhere because deregulation did not occur. But unsurprisingly, to show they were 100% market purists, this lesson was ignored by Labour when it returned to power in 1997, shunning a simple opportunity to begin to tackle the cowboy state of the industry.

An integrated, planned and publicly-owned transport system had been a key aim of the labour movement since the early 20th century, culminating in 1932 when the Labour Party passed a resolution at its conference in Leicester to introduce a socialist plan for transport. This had wide support in the movement, partly because the private train companies were seen to be abusing their monopoly position, something that had already forced government to introduce a significant degree of regulation. Class issues were behind the demand for efficient affordable transport for workers and the poor because under-investment by the railway monopolies in the rail system and the high price of tickets, combined with the unaffordable cost of private cars (then still a privilege of the affluent middle classes) were excluding millions from the right to travel.

Pressure from the Labour controlled London County Council (LCC) lead to the first nationalisation of public transport, with the setting up of the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933, which had a monopoly of road transport services in the capital city. Incidentally, it is a sign of the gulf that separates present day New Labour from its predecessor, that the person behind this move was Herbert Morrison, the leader of the LCC, figurehead of the right-wing of the Labour Party and chief witch-hunter of the left, who nevertheless still championed the cause of public ownership. Compare this to the attitude of his grandson, Peter Mandelson, who was a member of the first New Labour cabinet, and had (and has) a near theological belief in privatisation and free markets.


During the Second World War the entire transport system was largely put under state control. This was not due to a belief in public ownership by the Churchill government, needless to say, but because the shambolic state of a fragmented private railway industry in particular meant it could not fulfil the needs of a wartime economy.

The wave of radicalisation that swept society after the war, and Labour into power, resulted in this gain being consolidated in the 1947 Transport Act. This was meant to establish a “properly integrated system of public transport” by nationalising rail, canal and road transport, as well as maintaining London Transport in the public sector.

In addition, air transport, which had been taken into public ownership at the beginning of the war with the merger of British Airways and Imperial Airways, was given a monopoly of scheduled air services in 1946. However, far from marking the beginning of a new era of democratic control and planning of transport for the benefit of the whole of society, the 1947 Act represented the high water mark of public involvement in the transport system, with state ownership being gradually dismantled over the next 50 years.

Why did this happen? Firstly, because nationalisation was not just driven, or even mainly driven, by a socialist belief in planning and public ownership; it was dictated by the post-war circumstances, in which an already under-invested railway network had been further run down by the demands of the war economy.

The private owners would not spend the money needed to put it back on its feet (nevertheless, even though the rail companies were worth next to nothing in these circumstances, the owners received generous compensation, whilst complaining bitterly about being expropriated). Despite reluctantly accepting nationalisation, the capitalists were never fully reconciled to public ownership of railways as a permanent fixture, they were always waiting for an opportunity to seize them back, only after, of course, the state had invested enough to make them profitable again.

In the case of road transport, exceptions were made to the sectors nationalised, which were subsequently to undermine crucially the effectiveness of public ownership. For example, firms were allowed to use their own vehicles for transporting goods and only long-distance hauliers were nationalised. Due to the pricing structure used, this resulted in unprofitable freight business going by rail. Also, not all public transport services were included in the 1947 Act.

Further undermining the attempt at planning was the development of the long post-war boom, during which spending on cars increased four times, but it didn’t go up at all on public transport – a result of the domination of blind market forces. As a consequence, the viability of public transport was undermined, with an increasingly marginalised and run-down system being replaced by an unplanned explosion in the road network.

The remaining profitable parts of the public transport sector were gradually sold off by successive governments, Labour and Tory, and the process was completed when Thatcher’s attack on the union rights of public transport workers in the 1980s made all parts of the system potentially profitable and therefore attractive for private sharks to snap up.

Overall, the failure of the nationalisation of public transport following the Second World War was due partly to its piecemeal nature, with key areas of the sector not included, but principally to the impossibility of planning inside capitalism, where the battering ram of market forces driven by profit, pushed aside planning that could meet the long-term needs of society in a broad sense.

The environment

In the 1990s a new issue impacting on the future of public transport arose – the environment, in particular global warming. Before then, environmental concerns had been growing but were linked mainly to the threat to the quality of life caused by traffic congestion.

Global warming raised a new and urgent need to extend the use of public transport in order to cut greenhouse gases. Railways contribute just 1.7% of total UK transport-linked greenhouse gas emissions, while road traffic makes up 92%. Of this road traffic, 87% is due to cars and commercial vehicles, with only 3.7% linked to buses (

Since road vehicles account for 26% of all carbon dioxide emissions and carbon dioxide is the main contributor to the greenhouse effect, the importance of switching to rail and bus is clear.

In response to global warming, all the mainstream political parties pay lip service to reducing emissions by increasing public transport use, but to little effect in radically altering the mix of use from lorries and cars to rail and bus. It is true that in the past 10 years rail use has increased significantly but this has reached its limit, since it was done by packing more trains and passengers onto a worn-out network with limited capacity, leading to bottlenecks and poorer service. For example, some commuter train journey times are longer than they were 20 years ago a recent report has claimed. At the same time, car use has shot up, causing emissions to increase at least until 2010, according to government figures, wiping out any theoretical gain from increased rail use.

The impotence of New Labour in transforming public transport use in the face of the threat of global warming is because it presides over a still overwhelmingly privatised system that prioritises profit over the needs of the environment. It cannot escape from the fundamental truth that competitive markets will always ultimately degrade the natural world.

The approach advocated by Gordon Brown, although largely not implemented, is to use the price mechanism to change consumers’ and firms’ behaviour, to favour public transport use. This could be in the form of increased duty on petrol, increased road tax on ‘gas guzzlers’ or the introduction of toll roads. However, each time he has proposed or begun to implement any of these measures he has been forced either to withdraw or water them down, due to pressure from the road lobby or by public opinion, outraged, sometimes quite justifiably in the case of the public, by their unfairness.

John Prescott’s much trumpeted integrated transport policy, Transport 2000: The 10 Year Plan, that promised a sustainable approach that prioritised public transport, was abandoned before the ink was dry. Instead a massive programme of road building was promised, that was successively stepped up in the subsequent years, whilst the only significant project to improve the rail network, the upgrading of the West Coast main line, was halted halfway through due to rising costs.

These experiences highlight two big problems with using taxes to encourage the use of public transport. First, carbon taxes, such as those on petrol, are usually regressive, in that they hit the poorest hardest, because the poor spend a bigger proportion of their income on, for example, running a car. Higher petrol or road taxes also particularly affect rural workers because they have no choice but to use private cars, in the near absence of public transport, so in these circumstances it is not surprising that government measures to increase taxes provoke anger.

The second problem with carbon taxes is that firms will always find ways to evade them, or at least to largely neutralise their effects, by political lobbying or exploiting loopholes. Where a threat to their profits exists, the power of the oil companies, the car manufacturers, most energy generators and road builders will usually succeed in crushing opposition from the proponents of public transport.

Subsidies to encourage train and bus use are preferable to taxes because they operate in the opposite way, by favouring the poor. When Ken Livingstone still had radical credentials as leader of the Greater London Council in the 1980s, he introduced the Fares Fair policy that cut fares by a third, resulting in a big rise in the numbers using public transport and a fall in car use.

However, the use of subsidies is not a panacea in a market system, because they provoke opposition from the big corporations that want public expenditure to be cut so they can pay less tax, and particularly from those that depend on the carbon economy. Ken Livingstone found this out to his cost in the 1980s, when Thatcher abolished the GLC.

The failure of New Labour to hardly even begin to improve public transport and as a consequence to help tackle global warming, points to the need for a radical approach that addresses the fundamental obstacles to change.

The lessons of public transport policy since the Second World War are that market forces have dominated development, and piecemeal and partial nationalisation was unable to stand in their way. An integrated transport policy, which could harmonise the needs of the environment and of society, including the right to travel, will only become a reality when the power of the market is removed and replaced with a democratically planned system.

A democratically planned transport programme would not exclude the use of cars, although their use would significantly fall on a voluntary basis as public transport improved.

Hydrogen cell technology can be developed to power cars sustainably but its introduction is being held up by the car manufacturers, as they are not prepared to make the infrastructure or research investment needed to make it viable and fully green.

Under a planned programme, it will be possible to step up spending on this type of research, which is essential but only happening at a very slow pace currently, because the car manufacturers do not see sufficient profit in it.

Socialist programme

The key elements of a socialist programme for transport will be:

  • A massive increase in state investment in public transport, including research focused on green alternatives, combined with subsidies to encourage people voluntarily to switch from cars. No-one to be excluded from travel by cost.
  • The planned transfer of most freight onto the railways by expanding and upgrading the network.
  • The development of an affordable high-speed train network, integrated with the European system, which could replace most short and medium distance air travel, boosting sustainability further since emissions from aircraft are becoming a significant cause of global warming.
  • Since the market has shown it cannot ‘deliver’, the renationalisation of the transport sector is essential, democratically run with the involvement of passengers and staff.
  • To avoid the pressures of a profit driven market system pushing transport planning off course, as was seen after nationalisation 60 years ago, the 150 key monopolies that dominate the wider economy will also need to be brought under public ownership.