Home > Transport > Great British Railways: Yes Minister, you can change the wrapping, but that won’t remove the structural rot and make rail travel the public service it should be for us all

Great British Railways: Yes Minister, you can change the wrapping, but that won’t remove the structural rot and make rail travel the public service it should be for us all

Before anything else, Railways are a public service, and it is important to recognise what a public service really is or should be.

Public services are the essential services that every member of society should be able to access so that they have the same essential opportunities that everyone should have in life. Public services are usually run by Government or the Public Sector for the benefit of everyone. Either alone or collectively public services are run on the basis that they will provide universal access for the public to the service or services they provide. The master that calls the tune of public services should always be the public itself. One of the key reasons public services are in public hands is the intrinsic truth that providing a universal service means that provision in some locations will be cost effective and in some locations it will not. Public services are run objectively, not subjectively in the way that profit-led services are. Public services are created, maintained and developed for the benefit of us all.

The drive to privatise public services in the 80s and 90s has proven to be one of the Conservatives most destructive steps on the pathway to making the basic building blocks of life unaffordable for the poor.

A series of privatisations like British Telecom and British Gas were sold to us as an opportunity for normal people to take ownership of the services that are provided for us all.

Yet the decision to sell off public services was based on a flawed economic theory expounding the principle that free markets left alone to regulate themselves would ultimately look after and support us all.

The privatisation of public or municipally owned bus companies and franchising of the Rail Network was fundamentally the same. Despite the heavy element of government subsidies being paid even now, the result has been the changing of service priorities from public service to private profit, and that has had implications for us all.

The neoliberal approach to policy and public ownership adopted under the Thatcher regime was the toxic part or downside of the 1980’s Conservative legacy. It created a ticking time bomb that is now in the process of going off with an explosion of implications that are there for us all to see.

Public services are always cut or reformed with an inevitable loss of quality when they fall into private hands, no matter the promises that are made when the process is underway to sell them off or award them to contractors to run. Government subsidies do not matter and in all likelihood make the situation worse as they’re just a way of transferring wealth directly into shareholder hands.

British Railways are at a crossroads where the COVID pandemic has precipitated a steep fall. With private rail operators literally handing contracts back, the situation has literally forced government hands.

The solution that Transport Minister Grant Shapps is now giving us, is the creation of the ‘new’ Great British Railways brand.

Yes, the packaging may take on the look and appearance of a restructure. But the action taken by this Government will do nothing to address the institutional problems embedded within the UK railways system and the way it is operated.

Politically speaking, this is not just a Conservative problem. Labour are historically up to their necks in it too.

Employment rights, an unworkable zero-risk approach to safety and the working time directives that left wing progressives have pursued at every turn created an institutional problem for all public services and the structures of government. The focus on staffing conditions rather than the services they offer has made staff too expensive to afford under ‘public management’ and made a significant list of problems that an organisation as big as the UK rail network faces significantly worse.

Throw into the mix the self-serving influence of union barons, that is no better than the greed and profiteering of greedy bankers at its absolute worst and you have a recipe a disaster, rather than there being any sensible kind of choice when the whole system falls into disarray.

No government or politician can fix the problems that the railways face without addressing all of the different areas of public policy which have influence on the situation leading to the railways demise.

Lack of understanding of how railways and all forms of public transport function and operate has become an endemic flaw within the foundations upon which public transport policy is now made.

For instance, HS2 was never needed in the form of a completely new and separate transport infrastructure. Not when the real questions facing the railways and its management only extend to infrastructure when station capacity and the turnaround of trains at terminus stations in Towns and Cities like London is involved.

Throwing money at the Railways or simply restructuring them will not address the problems that need to be solved.

There is nothing to be gained by either renationalising the railways or continuing to attempt to run this vital public service by placing it in other private hands. 

Until such time as our politicians are big enough and prepared to enact the reforms and development of public policy that will facilitate public ownership of public services to run in the best interests of everyone, Rail services should be placed into the hands of non-profit making trusts. Our Railways should be run as a business by ethical, commercially experienced managers and executives who are motivated to run public services in the most efficient and professional manner and without the expectation that has become endemic throughout the public sector that executives don’t have to worry about income and how they provide value to customers, because their wages will always be paid.

It sounds like a tall order. But this is not something that is impossible to do. It just takes imagination and politicians leading us who have the will to do it, rather than concentrating and focusing on only doing whatever avoids the problem and at the same time makes them look good.  

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