We need a public railway

05 June 2017

Simon WellerThe Labour manifesto promises to bring Britain’s railways back into public ownership. Assistant general secretary Simon Weller says that’s what ASLEF has been campaigning for since 1993.

(As featured in the ASLEF Journal in June 2017)


The aims of ASLEF are quite clear and enshrined in our rule book. ASLEF exists to secure the best terms and conditions for train drivers, to negotiate on behalf of our members with the train and freight operating companies, to promote a pride in the job we do, to champion equality in our industry, to provide education services for our members, and to work for a fairer, more just, and more equitable society. A socialist society.

That’s what we want. A Labour government committed to socialist values. And that includes bringing back into public ownership the key parts of the British economy which belong to the British people.

Britain’s railways were first nationalised in 1948 by Clement Attlee’s great reforming post-war government. Attlee, who swept to power on an avowedly socialist platform in the Labour landslide of 1945, was determined to seize the economic levers of power in this country. By bringing the UK’s strategic heavy industries, and our key public utilities, into the public sector. Partly, because the private sector had failed. Partly, because the Labour government led by Attlee had to rebuild a shattered country after the Second World War. And, partly, because he wanted to remake Britain as a better, fairer, country. A country which worked for everyone, not just a few.

The railways were nationalised to rebuild the network, and the infrastructure, and the rolling stock, after the devastation caused by the Luftwaffe during nearly six years of bitter conflict. The coal industry was nationalised a year earlier, iron and steel a year later. Water, gas, electricity – and the Bank of England – were all brought into public ownership by a great reforming Labour government which also created the National Health Service – its enduring achievement – and the welfare state.

Public ownership gave the government, and the people of this country, control over our national assets, the commanding heights of the economy. It ensured a co-ordinated approach to production and supply to ensure economic efficiency, survival and revival as post-war reconstruction got under way. The advantage of a nationalised rail network, as with other natural monopolies, was that central planning could create a more organised and better co-ordinated service.

The post-war consensus meant that the Conservative governments of Winston Churchill (1951-55), Anthony Eden (1955-57), Harold Macmillan (1957-59 and 1959-63), Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1963-64) and Edward Heath (1970-74) also believed that public ownership of key parts of the economy was best for Britain.

It was Margaret Thatcher, influenced by Sir Keith Joseph, and the ‘voodoo economics’ of Ronald Reagan – that was the damning verdict of his fellow Republican, George Bush – and Milton Friedman’s Chicago School, which became so influential in neoliberal thinking, which tried to turn back time. Though, ironically, even this arch-privateer balked at privatising the Queen’s head, on the Royal Mail, and the railway. And when John Major brought in the Railways Act 1994, Thatcher described it as ‘a privatisation too far.’

When Major privatised our railway he promised three things – competition, innovation, and investment. Competition, he said, would drive innovation and investment. But there is no competition – the privatised train operating companies all have protected routes, private monopolies – there is precious little innovation – the privatised train companies were against the introduction of Oyster cards, an innovation of the publicly-owned Transport for London – and all the investment in the industry comes from central government.

Fares have gone up, not down – we now have the highest rail fares in Europe – while trains have become much more crowded. To the point where passengers, even those commuters in the south-east of England who usually vote Conservative, are calling for a return of the railways to public ownership.

We know why the train operating companies like privatisation – when they talk about ‘risk and reward’ they mean there is no risk, it’s all reward – but the model is broken. It doesn’t work. It’s no way to run a railway in the 21st century.

For the sake of passengers, and taxpayers, as well as for those of us who work in the rail industry, it is time to rediscover a political purpose, vote Labour, and bring the railway back into public ownership.

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