The Great Train Robbery
The Morning Star: 08 March 2012
More fares robbery, more cuts, more profiteering - and a network that continues to be the laughing stock of Europe. That's the Con-Dem vision for railways as set out in a consultation paper which was jaw-droppingly audacious in its claims that black is white, up is down and soaring prices are "more affordable."
Privateers are to get a licence to print money, in the shape of freedom to charge what they like during the rush hour.
Apparently this will "incentivise" us to travel off-peak, as if the legions of commuters who cram themselves daily into grubby, creaking, antiquated trains have any choice about when they get to work.
Apparently, too, allowing privateers to double or treble their already exorbitant peak fares will "end" the inflation-busting fare rises we have become used to year in, year out since privatisation.
That's not a use of "end" you're likely to find in any dictionary outside the Ministry of Transport.
Most insulting of all is Transport Secretary Justine Greening's talk of a £3.5-billion-a-year "efficiency gap."
We know all too well what the Con-Dems mean when they talk about making cuts for the sake of "efficiency."
They mean slashing everything that makes a service decent, reliable and accessible to all.
Here it's the station staff who stop platforms from being dark, dangerous, hostile places to wait. It's the guards who keep those overcrowded trains from becoming like the Wild West.
It's the ticket offices that cut through the post-privatisation muddle and help us find the right, cheapest fare.
These aren't luxuries. They're a basic part of a decent public service. If they go, and if the rail privateers are given free rein on fares, then our railways risk becoming a plaything for the rich at peak times and a no-go zone for the nervous the rest of the time.
And there's no need to cut any of them.
There is a multibillion-pound "efficiency gap" on the railways - and it's easily dealt with. But it's not the one the McNulty review identified.
It's the upwards of £5bn of taxpayers' money that we fork out in subsidy each and every year.
It goes straight through the rail system and out the other side into privateers' pockets - as evidenced by the creaking trains and the crumbling infrastructure they run on.
To add insult to injury, it's vastly more than British Rail was ever given. Almost exactly £3.5bn a year more than BR was ever given, in fact. How's about that for an efficiency gap?
And yet BR ran as a public service, not for profit, with affordable fares and a duty to serve all passengers, not just the middle-class commuters who can afford the soaring cost of a season ticket.
Imagine what BR could have done with the £5bn a year we're forking out for the highest fares and some of the worst service in Europe.
That's the real scandal of our railways - that we're being taken to the cleaners year in, year out by a bunch of incompetent chancers whose response to every setback is to demand, and get, more subsidy.
The only way to fix our railways is to take them back where they always belonged, into public ownership.
Economic logic demands it. The vast majority of the public want it. Britain's transport future needs it.
The only question is whether - once the Con-Dems are booted out - Labour can shake off its slavish adherence to the market, and go ahead and do it.