No More Rail Reviews: It’s time to declare a National Crisis in Public Transport

At a time when rail francising is quite clearly collapsing, today’s 2.7% fare rise is an outrage. It’s another sign that the government and industry will continue to treat us like a captive market, meaning that we’re continually paying more while constantly receiving less. Today, we’ll be joining with passengers around the country to demand a nationwide fares freeze, in recognition of the fact that UK public transport is now at the point of social, economic, and environmental crisis.

Protests kick off at London Kings Cross at 8am and you can view the full schedule here.

A National Crisis in Public Transport

For the last ten years, rail fares have been rising at twice the speed of wages. For many commuters on a lower income, this is more than just a matter of yearly injustice – they are being priced off the railway altogether.

And for bus passengers, things are even worse. Bus fares are rising at an even higher rate than rail, according to government statistics published last month – a shocking 3.3%. Unlike rail fares, bus fares outside of London are completely unregulated, meaning that bus companies can put up fares as and when they choose and do not even have to give a warning to passengers. Alongside the withdrawal of local investment and routes, this is pricing thousands of people out of bus travel, if they even have a service left at all.

Transport is the UK’s biggest polluting sector and the modal shift from car to public transport is a matter of urgency; not just for climate change but for public health, social equality and regional development.

No faith in the Williams Rail Review

The Williams Review was launched by the government soon after the timetable collapse of 2018, promising a ‘rail revolution’ and an end to the failed and fragmented franchising system. The government used this promise to evade a response to their leading role in the catastrophe; meaning that – to this day – they have not answered for the 2018 timetable crisis.

The reality of the Rail Review was nowhere near the ‘rail revolution’ promised. It had a narrow, ideological remit that excluded public ownership from the very start, and was also required to be ‘fiscally neutral’. The Rail Review that had begun by promising to ‘scrap franchising’ gradually lost all credibility as the government continued to award franchises regardless – East Midlands Trains and the West Coast Partnership.

Since the launch of the review in September 2018, Keith Williams has failed to report back. It is therefore without any public scrutiny that he approved the West Coast Partnership award to FirstGroup as ‘Williams compliant’ back in August. First Group shareholders, meanwhile, have been assured in the financial press that their future in UK rail looks more lucrative, thanks to an arrangement that protects the company from risk. The Financial Times has said that this is ‘the first time in ten years that a rail company has had financial protection.’

In a further twist to the tale, the government is being taken to court early this year over the by three different train companies over its franchising practices: Stagecoach, Virgin and Arriva. If it doesn’t go the government’s way, the cost to the taxpayer could be tens of millions – so how can we possibly trust the government to make further changes to the franchising system in the meantime?

Finally, we are extremely concerned about the excessive influence of the rail industry lobby on the outcome of the rail review. The Rail Delivery Group is calling for a mix of management contracts, concession-style models, and competitive intercity franchising, along with the proposal of an organising body resembling the ‘Strategic Rail Authority’ that was abolished in 2006. With franchising failing, it stands to reason that private train companies will be seeking to keep franchising alive, and the example of the West Coast Partnership already does not bode well for the promised ‘rail revolution’.

We’re calling for a Referendum on Public Ownership

Passengers and taxpayers are being denied a proper, democratic conversation about the future of our public transport system, which, in the era of Brexit, is now at the point of a national emergency if we are to build the equitable country we want to see now, and in the future.

At least two thirds of the public support public ownership and we urgently need a way to depoliticise the debate and move it forward in the national and public interest. We’re launching this demand to initiate a proper debate about transport policy, and we’ll soon be starting a Parliamentary petition, with the aim of achieving a Parliamentary debate on the matter of a public ownership referendum. We believe this is one of the few tools we have left for any kind of democratic conversation, most especially, the urgent need for scrutiny of the government’s plans for a new White Paper based on the Williams Review.

Over the next few months, we’ll be calling not only for a referendum, but for citizens assemblies and other forums to have a sensible, honest and expert discussion about the future we want for our country. The time of both climate and social crisis in transport is NOW, and we cannot afford to wait any longer.

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