The beauty of privatised rail

The UK’s first £1,000 rail ticket has been described as “scandalous” and “appalling value” by opposition MPs. The first-class return walk-up fare is from Newquay, in Cornwall to Kyle of Lochalsh, in the Scottish Highlands.

But don’t worry. If you can’t afford that:

Cross Country Trains, which sells the ticket, said an advance fare was available for £561.

Whoever said that governments were run in the interests of corporations and not people? Thank you Margaret Thatcher and New Labour. This story is quite literally, First Class.


24 thoughts on “The beauty of privatised rail

  1. To be fair, this is for a first class ticket. People that travel first class (ie the entire tory party, apparently) deserve all they get.

  2. What is a First Class carriage like nowadays in the UK? Do you get more attractive upholstery on the seating?

  3. Free booze is what you get. Well, at £1,000 a ticket it’s not exactly ‘free’ per se, but then think of how much booze you could drink between Cornwall and the Highlands. In many ways it’s an absolute bargain.

  4. Let’s hope (but it would be crazy to expect) that the government taking over the running of the East Coast Mainline in England this week could last longer than the planned18 months.

    When you consider the huge sums of money that the state has been paying in subsidies to the mish-mash of private companies that are doing such a terrible job with the railways, purely from an economic angle it makes sense for re-nationalisation.

    This is aside from the other convincing arguments about land transport infrastructure best being done without the profit-motive to screw up services. Competition was supposed to make for better trains. It hasn’t done this because businesses have been granted virtual monopolies in most parts of the country.

  5. I agree completely Brett. Although when the government privatized it, I don’t think they did it to improve services. They knew full-well that like any big public service, it’s almost impossible to run them at a profit. But they did see an opportunity to serve corporate interests by “nationalising the losses and privatizing the gains” as Neil Clark says:

    “Franchising has meant that the private firms have effectively struck a no-lose bet. If business goes well, they make huge profits. If it doesn’t, they walk away and the taxpayer picks up the tab.

    In Britain, since privatisation, the need to maximise profits has come before all other considerations, often with disastrous consequen­­­ces for passengers. Because hiring extra carriages from the leasing companies is deemed too expensive, Britain’s rail firms try to ration existing capacity by pricing people off trains. The result is frequent overcrowding.”

  6. If we are to reduce carbon emissions due to private transport (cars) and air, there needs to be some pretty radical action. Well we could always rely of people to change their behaviour and reduce their desire to travel further and faster. Somehow I doubt it.

  7. @Ed, From Wikipedia:

    “While average fare prices have changed little since privatisation, this masks substantial changes. Although the price of commuter season tickets has fallen in real terms, many unregulated fares have increased as demand levels shifted, particularly ‘walk-on’ fares on inter-urban routes where operators have urged passengers to use the cheaper ‘advance purchase’ tickets. In fact, this has become so common that Virgin Trains now charge £219 for a standard open return ticket between Manchester and London, a journey of only 200 miles each way.[6] So far as the timetable is concerned, many more trains are being run each day than under BR as operators have tried to run more frequent, but usually shorter, trains on many routes to attract more customers.”

    However, note that there are hardly any footnotes given for these claims.

    It comes to something when even The Times are begging “Bring Back British Rail”. This article I think encapsulates the madness surrounding much of the current system:

    I think cost is a huge motivator and if a cheap, efficient train service could be provided, a lot of people would use the train more or at least, park and ride.

    I think another equally important question – apart from efficiency and cost – is what has been the effect on workers wages and conditions since privatization. I remember seeing a Ken Loach film about this that’s worth watching. You can see it all on YouTube in fact:

  8. I probably agree that (not based on any evidence that I know) privitisation is a bad thing but not sure I want to base my decision on wikipedia or a Times article. Had a lovely train ride into Cardiff this morning…expensive mind but cheaper than the car.

  9. I wouldn’t want to base my decision on one tiny part of the rail network in Cardiff either. I’m sure there are some small parts of the rail network that work very well but there’s wide discontent over it as a whole. Maybe this poll is better indicator of public opinion on it:

    It would be interesting to know what the main reasons are behind this feeling but I bet ticket prices are number one. It’s well know the UK has the highest train fares in Europe:

  10. Steady fella..I wasn’t, it was a know me, I am a man who likes to consume then make decisions. I think the rail network and public transport in this country is generally pretty rubbish. As you know I worked for a sustainable transport charity. The poll you show is one of employees isnt it..not surprising they want it nationalised..better working conditions, better pension, better flexible working etc. Just pushing my own agenda of blogs representing obsolute truths, when I find that hard to swallow..just my bugbear that’s all. I guess this is a wider issue I have about picking and choosing evidence polls etc..we all do it. And I am writing on your blog as I know I can get a reasonable debate and you may even persuade me that blogs don’t do that. I reckon we come from similar viewpoints on most things, although maybe through working in civil society and government it has become less black and white for me. Sure the system is not right but maybe I look at the good and work on trying to change the other bits (bad) when and where I can within my work. But I guess you are a journalist and the wrong is more of a story. Glad you are freelance of the reasons I left PR was dealing with the media day in day out..made me very cynical and depressed!!!!

  11. In (partial) defence of privatisation, Virgin Trains are absolutely amazing. It’s taken them a while to get to this stage but it’s actually a pleasure to use them. They’re clean, quiet, quick, frequent, reliable and, if you book in advance, usually pretty cheap.
    Maybe under nationalised rail everything would be that good.

  12. @Ed, I’m not sure where in the previous comment I came across as confrontational but it wasn’t meant to be. I was just applying the same logic to what you said as you did to what I said. I get the impression you think that some of the things I blog about (such as this one about the railways) require a degree, Masters or extensive research in the subject to understand or critic properly. I personally don’t and I’ll explain why.

    Firstly, you misunderstood the poll. It is not of the RMT union members – its of the general public and was carried out by the RMT union. However, if you doubt how representative that poll might be, the only other one I can find on this issue right now was a Guardian/ICM poll from 1999 that found 73% of the public supported renationalisation. It’s referred to right at the end of this BBC article:

    Secondly, I’m sorry if you find this is “picking and choosing evidence” to support my point but there are very few other polls that I can find quickly on this subject.

    Thirdly, you may think I see things too “black and white” but in many issues that is the case. It’s just that corporate interests emanating from the mainstream media and government have managed to obscure basic truths which otherwise would be obvious. The railways are a perfect case in point…

    If the public, and the “educated” elite that run government, hadn’t been subjected to so much corporate propaganda that profit is the only reason for anything to exist, then it would take them exactly one second to understand that some public services can’t be run at a profit. Some public services – like the railways – may need to be run at loss for very good reasons. Keeping people moving quickly and efficiently – instead of having them stuck in traffic jams – has obvious knock-on effects for the rest of the economy. And when it comes to a recession like now, public companies can maintain employment whereas the first thing private companies often do is sack workers thus making the recession worse by reducing the number of consumers out there with money in their pockets. Saving people money on transport also leaves people with more disposal income to spend on other parts of the UK economy rather than just petrol and motoring thus leading to a quicker recovery.

    These are just a few basic truths which we are simply not allowed to understand or even consider because they go against the short-term interests of private power.

    But with the railways, the case against privatisation is even more overwhelmingly obvious and “black and white” for additional reasons. What’s happening with the railways is exactly the same as is happening with the government bailouts of the financial industry. When business goes well the rail companies make huge profits. When things go badly, the public pick up the tab.

    Finally, and this ties in to Soft Mick’s point, it’s no surprise that some rail services (like the Virgin one he uses and the Cardiff line you mentioned earlier) are rather pleasant and performing well. They’re receiving subsidies that British Rail could have only have dreamed of. Just prior to privatisation, British Rail received 1.5 billion pounds in subsidies (at today’s prices):

    Last year, the 8 biggest UK train franchises alone received 6.7 billion pounds in subsidies.

    That’s no reason to even “partially” defend privatization of the UK railways and, despite my lack of “expertise” in public transport issues, I hope explains why I see this particular issue as overwhelmingly “black and white”.

    By the way, thanks to both of you for opening-up an interesting debate on what was a rather sarcastic post by me in the first place 🙂

  13. I guess my comment was ironic..sorry. I don’t think you need a Phd or masters. I guess we can agree to disagree. But you must agree with write with an agenda..that is the purpose of blogs I guess but I do not see it as journalism. In addition you often claim the mainstream media are to blame..I agree 100% on that but you often quote them as evidence..I guess there is some good and bad..personally I have little or no faith in the mainstream media in representing facts. On the issue of bank bailouts..again I have no clue what the consequences would have been if it hadnt been done. Yes it is wrong but to stop the system like that I imagine would have be catastrophic.

    If you had the pleasure of being elected to the great heights of office what system would you go for. Tricky question I know.

  14. Also…not sure GB could afford to nationalise the railways. Even before they bailed out the banks.

  15. Ah, Ed, that’s the beauty of it. Renationalisation wouldn’t actually cost anything as the franchise operators have contracts which expire after a certain number of years. All the government would have to do is not renew the contracts.
    But you’re right about the government cash shortage being an issue. The real problem for the railways is that the lines are absolutely buggered and need re-laying. This is going to cost billions and take decades to complete, and at the moment it’s hard to see the government going for any other option that PFI.

  16. @Ed, No worries. A lot of irony and humor is lost communicating this way which is I guess one of the reasons why “emoticons” were invented 😉

    @”But you must agree with write with an agenda..that is the purpose of blogs I guess but I do not see it as journalism”

    The only agenda of these blog posts is to help open an honest discussion on some of the points they cover and help me to refine my own ideas and thoughts on them from the valued input of others such as yourself. I’ve never claimed that these blog posts are journalism. A small selection of the journalistic pieces I’ve written can be founded in the “MY PUBLISHED ARTICLES” category on the right. The blog posts are in the “MY BLOG POSTS” category. Blogging in general is much closer to writing an opinion column although a certain amount of online research is often required to make a point, provide evidence etc. That doesn’t make it any less valid or legitimate as journalism as a free and open way for people to express their ideas and thoughts.

    @”In addition you often claim the mainstream media are to blame..I agree 100% on that but you often quote them as evidence..” You seem to suggest that there’s some kind of contradiction there but I don’t see any whatsoever. The mainstream media are constantly reporting stories and writing columns about how dysfunctional and inhumane the corporate capitalist system is. But it doesn’t for one moment occur the liberal journalists that write them to question the fundamental forces of power behind these systems. They’ve been so throughly and effectively indoctrinated that they understand that there are simply things that you don’t say or question – that’s exactly why they work for The Times, The Guardian, The BBC etc. If they believed anything else, they’d soon be out of a job. So for example, I quoted a report from The Times about the franchises demanding more subsidies from the government. But would The Times ever consider writing an opinion piece stating that the franchises are effectively legalized theft from the public? Or even an article on whether the trains should be put under some form of public control or even, gasp, run at a loss because they’re an essential public service . No they wouldn’t.

    @”On the issue of bank bailouts..again I have no clue what the consequences would have been if it hadnt been done. Yes it is wrong but to stop the system like that I imagine would have be catastrophic.” We did discuss this in an earlier post a while back. To summarise, the bailouts were no-strings attached to the corporations that took them. It was not in the publics interest to do it that way. My full reply from that post is here:

    @”If you had the pleasure of being elected to the great heights of office what system would you go for. Tricky question I know.” That’s a whole blog post in itself and hard to summarize in a few words but I’d go for the top job in order to have the power to reform the entire political and economic system bit-by-bit until it is run by the people and in the interests of people not profit. Ultimately, a system that doesn’t require a vast political elite that’s changed once every 4 years and polluted with corporate interests would be the ideal.

    @Soft Mick, That’s a good point. My thinking might sound maddeningly simple minded when it comes to government budgets but if they’ve got enough to provide socialism for the rich, then they must have more than enough to provide socialism for the rest of us. And all that’s been spent on illegal wars and continues to be spent on immoral adventures abroad, I think it’s obvious where the saving could be made. It’s just a question of political will.

  17. Thanks for the comprehensive response. I guess it is a matter of convincing the public of what the system should look like and then turn to the mainstream media. If that system would infact work. A big ask! It is systemic. It is also often too big a picture for people to grasp or feel they have any power to change it. Fundamentally I agree with you but would need to look into it more to have a solid basis for that. I think working at the grassroot level is key but you need alot of people doing it. But then again..if you went to a community group with your position stated above, I think you might get a blank look. Anyway, good debate and one that will continue for many decades and probably long after we are gone.

  18. Well thanks for the debate as it is an important one. Although obviously further investigation would be necessary, I don’t see anything particularly complicated about any of the points discussed here about the rail network. I think a community group would be more than able to handle it. In fact, the real key to changing it is actually do something like that instead of waxing lyrical here 😉

  19. I was more referring to the liberal elite state corporate capitalism rather then the rail network and at the end of the day we are just airing opinions based on our own experiences. In terms of community’d be surprised but as you say getting out there and taking it campaigning, working with community groups is the way to go. My new role involves alot of both and am loving it. Not that I am tackling the current system but supporting communities to tackle development and poverty. But I hope in some of what I do I also try to make small changes where I can.

    Any community movements in BCN that you are involved with, always been intrigued with civil society in Spain. People tell me it is quite weak compared to the UK.

  20. I’m still not convinced there’s anything complicated about those either though. I think most people already understand that powerful institutions, whether it’s the media or state, are going to try and preserve that power at all costs.

    Good on you in your new job. Sounds very worthwhile. Do you ever feel like as long as certain systems stay in place though, you’re efforts will only go so far?

    I’ve interviewed and written about many community groups working on specific issues in Barcelona. One recent one that springs to mind was a group that successfully fought-off developers from ripping down their homes:

    It seems to me there are fewer NGO and charities in Spain but more community groups that form around certain issues. I’ve always perceived Spaniards as pretty active when it comes to defending their communities from rampaging capital compared to the British but that may be just my personal impression. Although again, that’s another issue entirely and nothing to to do with the railways!

  21. In terms of the bigger issues, yes I think the work I do or more importantly the work that volunteers all over the UK do to tackle poverty can only be successful to a certain level but things have moved alot in terms of development in the last 10 years. The global system is a mess and favour the powerful eilite – us lot! We can all work on campaigning and lobbying and getting out there in the community. Also support the larger NGOs in the fight. The system does need to change but in terms of development and poverty and particularly climate change we do not have time to breakdown the system and then start working on those issues. Action is needed now. Just been to a conference on community action against climate change, interesting.

  22. I guess what I am saying is I have picked my battle and want to do what I can. It all overlaps though.

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