Feb 2005 - No place for the profit motive

01 June 2013

Parliament has been debating the Railways Bill. Christopher Chope MP, Tory transport spokesman, ran a diversion about the future of first class travel rather than focus on the future of public transport.

 It was 'Chopper Chope', then a rabidly Thatcherite council leader who made his reputation (and won his safe Tory seat) on the back of a massive assault on the nurseries, children's libraries and play facilities of Wandsworth in SW London.

Typically Tory - interested only in the comfort of the well heeled. And massively hypocritical to grandstand his 'concern' for the right of pregnant mothers to claim a first class train seat. As if most working mums could afford first class travel on maternity benefit!

The Tories' problem is that they were responsible for the privatisation of the railways and cannot, with any credibility, attack the Labour government for carrying out their policy with more efficiency, and regrettably, more conviction than John Major's ministers could ever manage.

Railway privatisation has proved to be a disaster for passengers but a bonanza for privateers. It is not only the enduring scandal of the millions in subsidy poured into the profit margins of the train operating companies. It is the ever escalating costs of bringing the railway infrastructure up to date.

The rail unions, working with our very effective group of MPs, have ensured that the parliamentary debate included some scrutiny of this cash cow for city slickers.

Taking back the railways into public ownership will not be the result of a single act. We have to be realistic about that unfortunate truth. But there is very substantial public support for the progressive recovery of passenger franchises as they expire.

One virtue of this simple demand, is that it is cheap. The franchise ends, the government says thank you very much and sends the privateers away to spend more time with their taxpayers' millions.

Another virtue, is that it chimes with the feelings of millions of voters. Yet another that it is offcial Labour Party policy - placed on Labour's conference agenda by the party's policy forum and agreed by a very substantial majority by the party's annual conference.

So it was a bizarre act of political farce for Labour MPs, including many in the electorally critical South East commuter belt, to be whipped into the 'aye' lobbies in support of a policy which could cost them their seats and the party its majority.

The Locomotive Journal this month focuses on safety. This the theme of our important spring offensive made more timely by the news of train disasters in Italy, and most recently, the level crossing crash in California. Every such incident reinforces our conviction that no effort should be spared to design out danger from the railway. And if we argue that modernising the drivers' cab should be the centrepiece of any strategy to improve safety it is because the man or woman at the front of the train has a more powerful incentive to ensure safe running than shareholders. That is why the profit imperative should have no place in the public service we deliver.

 

Keith Norman 
Acting General Secretary

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