Jan 2007 - 2007 - the year of the train?

01 June 2013

LOGICALLY 2007 should see a massive expansion of rail travel, enthusiastically backed by the UK government. The reasons are self-evident. Global warming is an issue of major concern: rail can cut carbon emissions. Road congestion is gradually bringing the country – and the economy – to a stand-still: rail is the logical alternative to road transport. Huge lorries are bad for the environment and the state of our roads, as well as being dangerous for motorists and cyclists: rail is the obvious choice to move long-haul freight.

The logic is on our side: but sadly the government does nothing. Oh, it looks and sounds concerned – but the Department for Transport, by continuing the Tory policy of rail privatisation, has made itself impotent. It has given away its power. It cannot direct – it can only try to bribe profit motivated rail companies into compliance. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

One instance where it doesn’t is Wales. First Great Western (FGW) bid for work including Welsh routes and the government accepted its offer. Then FGW calculated that the Cardiff to Swansea section cost them £1.2 million a year and that it only brought in £112,000 in revenue. So it did what any capitalist company would do: it began to cut the service. The busy 1718 was the first chosen for the chop. The reaction from the public was predictable.

As a result of a public outcry politicians at every level have demanded that the DfT should make funds available to finance the service. Welsh Assembly Members Edwina Hart and John Griffiths complained, local MPs objected and even Cabinet Minister Peter Hain got involved – calling the situation ‘simply unacceptable’ on the floor of the House of Commons. To complicate matters further, Arriva Trains Wales said they would gladly run additional trains – if they were paid to do so. The Department refused to pay up: the result is stalemate. Literally. Nothing moves.

It sums up the privatisation disaster. Bureaucrats argue with private companies; politicians raise the issue with ministers and companies squabble between themselves. Meanwhile the public stand shivering on stations.

If private companies are allowed to run down services the public will be forced onto the roads. They will have no choice. This will leave the government’s environment policies in tatters, the public will become disenchanted with rail and the roads will become even more cluttered than they are today.

The alternative is to bring rail back into public ownership so that sensible service decisions can be made in the public interest – rather than on the basis of profit levels. This is not just the best way forward for rail – it is the only way to ensure that 2007 really does become the year of the train.

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