Yet again a private rail franchise, this time Southeastern, has been shown to have its hands in the till, as “errors” meant that £25 million of public money was not returned to the government... seven years after it was due. As a result of this “serious breach” of the franchise agreement, the government has handed the franchise back to the state-owned "operator of last resort". This is the first time a franchise has been stripped for unashamedly trying to rip off us off.
Tubeworker has heard of many people who misplace their Oyster card or lose some money in a POM, but to forget about £25 million resting in your account somewhere seems a bit far fetched even for the most ruthless of bosses. It seems certain that Southeastern are not the only ones playing dirty, they are just the first to be found out.
The rail network - like the NHS, utilities and the post - are all socially necessary and useful public services. A green and publicly run transport system is essential to efforts to halt the climate crisis. While it is run by privateers more interested in profits then running an efficient and accessible service, we all suffer. And nationalisation of the entire network is an increasingly popular demand, with polls showing around 75% of the public support it. The Labour Party is, on paper, committed to public ownership of the railway but Labour leaders make clear they only support taking franchises back into public ownership on a franchise-by-franchise basis when their contracts expire, not renationalising the whole lot all at once. And there is little word from them about the outsourcing (i.e., privatisation) of maintenance, cleaning, and other services.
Although the government has taken over Southeatern, parent company Go-Ahead is still allowed to operate the Thameslink services, and remains the largest bus operator in London. Years of railway privatisation has seen billions roll in for shareholders and fat cat bosses while services, safety, jobs, and conditions are under constant attack.
London Underground remains a publicly-owned railway, but there is plenty of privatisation under the TfL aegis. London Overground, DLR, the buses, and services like cleaning, catering, security, and track protection are all run by private companies. And the Tories' current demands for cuts on TfL could well be a mirror of its policies for the NHS... running down the service to soften it up for privatisation.
All the rail unions are united in favour of a nationalised rail network, but that must mean more than a press release each time a major failing gets media attention. It has to mean an ongoing, active campaign. Unions occasionally organise leafleting and petitioning activities outside train stations; we must step such activity up. And, whilst Britain's restrictive anti-union laws prohibit explicitly political strikes, we must discuss ways of challenging the logic of privatisation via industrial action.
While the current system sees franchises compete with each other for services, routes, and ever-increasing ticket prices, railway workers can offer an alternative. A wholly publicly-owned system could deliver a cheaper, greener, and integrated transport system. A system that puts service, and the conditions and safety of its workers and passengers, at the forefront, rather than profit. A system where workers and passengers help to run the railway together. Unlike the government we don’t want this idea to be the "operator of last resort". But to get there, we will need to fight.