The East Coast line is operating at a profit, after being taken back into the public sector after two privatisation failures. So the Government wants to give private operators a third opportunity to mess it up.

The publicly-owned East Coast Main Line is generating profit for tax payers. The Government wants to privatise it.

The publicly-owned East Coast Main Line is generating profit for tax payers. The Government wants to privatise it.

Ah, who doesn’t love private sector efficiency?

There is nothing more efficient at shovelling profits to shareholders and undermining public services. And when it all goes horribly wrong, come crying to the tax payer for a bail out.

There is a myth, propagated by business and their friends in Government that says the private sector is efficient and dynamic, while the public sector is wasteful and slow. If only we could get the dead hand of state bureaucracy off the tiller of the economy, the vibrant beast of competition would be unleashed and we would storm ahead to prosperity for all!

The reality, of course, is different.

There is an absolute litany of private sector blunders we could list today: the crash of the entire finance sector in 2008, the disastrous attempt by G4S to provide security for the Olympics, the Royal Mail sell off that cost us £750 million in a day, ATOS, Capita, Serco: the list just goes on and on. In all these cases, it was the public sector – you and I, brothers and sisters – who had to step in an save these corporate geniuses from their failures.

But today let’s focus just on rail privatisation. This was supposed to herald a new era of competition: the discipline of the markets would – ahem – see a massive increase in efficiency and cost effectiveness.

What do we get instead? A byzantine ticketing system that no one understands, the most expensive rail fares in Europe, and the crazy situation whereby a simple journey involves subjecting yourself to the tender mercies of up to a dozen different companies: Virgin, First, Trainline, National Express, Network Rail – who even knows what they all do, let alone who to hold accountable when things go wrong?

Rail fares have increased by up to 245% since privatisation 20 years ago. Public subsidies to rail have risen dramatically since privatisation too. It’s win all round, isn’t it?

Feeling the love yet?

There is just one rail route in the UK run by the public sector. This is the East Coast Main Line between London, York and Edinburgh. It was taken back into public control after two private sector operators – National Express and GNER – failed to deliver. It is now run effectively, and has generated £600 million in profit for the tax payer – estimated to rise to £800 million by the end of the year.

Sounds like a great model, right? You’d expect the Government to take the other services back too, wouldn’t you?

Nope.

The UK Government wants to give the private sector another shot at gouging profit from this service by privatising it.

The irony is that they seem to be completely opposed to state ownership of the railways – unless it’s a foreign state: German Deutsche Bahn, French SNCF and Dutch Nederlandse Spoorwegen own major parts of UK rail services. Is the British state uniquely incapable of running a rail service?

The rail unions – RMT, ASLEF and TSSA – have taken a stand, and launched an application for a judicial review. But its up to all of us to get stuck in and say to this Government of asset-stripping, corporate-loving bandits that it’s time to end the failed experiment with privatisation.

Follow the Action for Rail campaign for more info, and support the campaign to keep the East Coast line public.

east coast


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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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