Public transport: how to get back on track

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Shareholders and accountancy firms are the biggest beneficiaries of the privatisation of public transport in Britain. Unjum Mirza, RMT rail union member and Left List candidate in the GLA elections, proposes a different vision of a publicly run, environmentally friendly and efficient system.

The market has failed. The Tory privatisation of the railways has been a disaster. The Hatfield derailment exposed the failure of Railtrack and the fundamental flaw in the "separate the wheel from steel" strategy - in which railway operations are split from infrastructure. More rail disasters, from Ladbroke Grove to Potters Bar, further illustrated that public services left to the dictates of the market cost lives.

In July 1999 even the Economist magazine had to admit that "the Tories preferred to see the railways privatised badly than not at all. And that was what they got." This was an important admission, but it merely shifted the debate from why privatisation doesn't work to the problem of its implementation.

Thus, despite party manifesto pledges, New Labour continued with the privatisation agenda until, under intensified public pressure, then transport minister Stephen Byers was forced on 5 October 2001 to bring Railtrack into administration under a "not for profit company", Network Rail.

Nevertheless, New Labour pressed full steam ahead, not only continuing Tory policies but actually extending the privatisation agenda. It was Gordon Brown who forced through the Public Private Partnership (PPP) on London Underground. This time "separating wheel from steel" has already witnessed five derailments, two in one weekend.

The East London Line extension, due to be finished in 2010, will be run by a complex hybrid of eight different companies. Two will be responsible for signalling, two for infrastructure maintenance, two for infrastructure renewals, one for train and station operations and one for train maintenance.

PPP really put the con in contract. Most spectacularly, Metronet, representing two thirds of the contract, was forced into administration on 18 July last year when it ran up debts of £2 billion - a debt that Gordon Brown has written off with public money.

The madness of the market and the sheer greed of the privateers were well illustrated during the Mayor of London's Question Time on the day Metronet went into administration. Transport for London (TfL) managing director Tim O'Toole and TfL managing director of finance Steve Allen accompanied Ken Livingstone on the day.

When asked about the potential liability on either TfL or London Underground Ltd as its subsidiary, for a considerable chunk of Metronet's debts, O'Toole confirmed that "the Metronet debt is guaranteed by us". And again, when the mayor's team was further pushed for answers to whether it was true that TfL or the subsidiary could be liable for up to 95 percent of the debt, Allen explained, "That is correct. That is a feature of the PPP contracts."

Brown paid out over £500 million to accountancy firms to draw up the failed PPP contracts. One of the firms, Ernst & Young, took over as administrator, charging £750 per person per hour - and there are 45 of them. Just like the collapse of Northern Rock although the mess is not of our making, the rich are determined that we pay. The argument is simple: if it's the public who pay, then it should be the public who own and control.

A fully integrated, publicly owned, democratically accountable and environmentally sustainable transport system is not only possible but necessary. Climate change is a major issue facing humanity. However, it is also a class issue. This was starkly exposed when a young delegate from the RMT union asked David Miliband, environment minister, the following question at the TUC Congress in 2006:

"If we are serious about greening Britain and reducing harmful emissions, then railways must be a key part of the solution. So is it not time that we took some serious steps towards making rail travel attractive, affordable and available to all?"

The minister's shameful response was, "I was absolutely dreading a question about transport because I do not know anything about transport. Do we need to make the railways affordable and attractive? Yes. How do we do it? I do not know."

Yet transport policy will play a major part in the Climate Change Bill's target to reduce carbon emissions by 60 percent by 2050. Road transport currently contributes over 21 percent of Britain's carbon emissions, with a predicted rise to 30 percent from 1990 to 2020. Moreover, in 2002 189 million passengers used Britain's airports, with a projected increase of between 350 and 460 million by 2020. Just creating a high speed rail link between London and Scotland would cut demand for internal flights.

There is an alternative. The madness of the free market in transport must be ended to allow for a sustainable public transport system integrating principally rail, buses and shipping. There is a convergence of interest between transport workers and the public to achieve this. For the public, any modal shift from roads, private car use and aviation, must take the cost of travel into account. Figures since 1975 indicate that up to 2004 the cost of motoring fell by 11 percent, while during the same period rail fares rose by 70 percent - probably accounting for the fact that rail currently only accounts for 6 percent of all transport journeys.

In 2004 rail unions commissioned the labour movement thinktank Catalyst to investigate the financial structure and performance of the railway industry post-privatisation. One report concluded that receipts from fares increased from £2.94 billion to £4.39 billion in 2003. In the same year train-operating companies also received £1.2 billion in public subsidy. They then paid shareholders £160 million. The profits of the private companies are dependent on massive state handouts and expensive fares.

If the drive for profits was removed, the cost of travel by rail and bus could be slashed. Furthermore, tickets could be made interchangeable between rail, tube, light rail, buses and trams. A coordinated timetable between different modes of an integrated public transport system could then be created.

This would require massive investment in public transport to deal with the problems of overcrowding and to enhance safety equipment. For example, if 5 percent of people travelling by car turn to rail it would require a 50 percent increase in rail capacity.

For rail workers we expect decent terms and conditions and an end to attacks on health and safety. Privatisation and the fragmentation of the railways have led to a concerted and continual drive to casualise the workforce with the introduction of agency and security staff at minimum wage and often zero-hour contracts in place of licensed and qualified railway staff.

This economic race to the bottom lies behind the current dispute on London Underground. The privateers are continually seeking ways of skirting around, undermining and plain cutting corners when it comes to safety. Any mass transport system needs to be run to the highest safety standards with staff present at all locations with pay and conditions that reflect the important role they play.

For the planet, an integrated transport system is not only necessary for public use. It is also necessary environmentally for the passage of freight. The percentage of freight moved by road in Britain is higher than the European Union's average. Carbon emissions in Britain from heavy goods vehicles increased from 6.3 million tonnes of carbon in 1994 to 7.6 in 2004. Freight volumes are projected to expand in the aviation sector from 2.2 million tonnes in 2003 to 14 million tonnes in 2030 (south east of England). In 2005, 585 million tonnes of foreign and domestic cargo were moved through British ports - the additional volume can be readily accommodated.

In 2005, 90,000 tonnes of domestic cargo and mail were uplifted at British airports. This could be moved by rail, inland waterway and coastwise traffic. All this is achievable. All it requires is the political will to shift from blind faith in the free market policies of successive Tory and Labour governments.

Transport workers and members of the public are best situated to determine what kind of transport system we want. Together we can run a system paid for by the public, democratically accountable to the public and served by public sector workers in our interest.


Unjum Mirza is the secretary of the RMT Stratford No.1 Branch. He writes in a personal capacity