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16 May 2018updated 04 Aug 2021 12:28pm

The renationalisation of the East Coast Mainline proves the need for a publicly-owned railway

Even the Conservatives can no longer disguise the failure of privatisation - only Labour offers a comprehensive alternative. 

By Manuel Cortes

So with the announcement that the East Coast Mainline is to be taken back into public ownership, the Conservative Party are finally accepting the long evident economic case that their privatisation experiment with our railways isn’t working. Not even the noise generated by the media’s frenzied excitement around the weekend’s Royal nuptials can bury this bad news for the Tories.

The announcement should sound the death knell on the political career of Transport Secretary, Christopher Grayling. Without doubt, the government’s rail U-turn will have been thrust upon this most ideological – some say worst-ever – of ministers. He would have rather walked on broken glass than knocked down one of the pillars of Hayek’s free market house.

But it serves too as a welcome and positive affirmation of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to bring our railways back into public ownership. I doubt there is a person in the ranks of those who have long campaigned against the new age of rail robber barons, who ever thought that an arch-Thatcherite would accept the logic of Corbynism. But the economic madness of rail privatisation, with its labyrinth of direct and indirect public subsidies to private train operators, has come unstuck through another of Grayling’s neoliberal fetishes – Brexit.

Brexit’s growing negative economic impact means the predicted growth in passenger numbers at sell-off time in 2015 – already incredibly hard to achieve – has now become widely unrealistic. Yet it was this anticipated growth which underpinned the financial health of the East Coast franchise. This debacle is, frankly, nothing less than a rail sub-prime mortgage scandal for which, thanks to Tory mismanagement, the British public must pay again. Virgin East Coast is now the third franchise on this line to be rescued from insolvency by taxpayers.

That the Conservative government has brought the East Coast line back into public ownership demonstrates that EU membership does not, as the Transport Secretary claims, prevent public ownership of the railways. It didn’t prevent Andrew Adonis in the past and it hasn’t prevented Grayling today.

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The unveiling of London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) resurrects the name of an old private company associated with the so-called golden age of rail. LNER may evoke the Tory-myth of private good but its badge is in fact pinned onto the highly successful, publicly-owned model East Coast Trains. Established by Adonis, the former Labour transport secretary in 2009, to rescue services between London, Aberdeen and Inverness, East Coast Trains was a railway and public sector success story. The trains ran on time, passengers were guaranteed seats and money poured into our public coffers. Naturally, it fell prey to Tory free marketers and, despite huge opposition to its sell off by George Osborne, it was privatised in the run-up to the 2015 general election.

Media reports have indicated that Virgin East Coast is not the only private train operator now in peril. The Sunday Times recently reported several others are on the brink and face collapse by the end of this year unless they are brought back into the public sector. Anyone close to our industry knows this to be the case. Only the Transport Secretary and his fellow ideologues in the cabinet refuse to face facts. After the Carillon debacle and with mounting evidence of other major privateers also going south, bailing out our railways must be as bitter a pill for the government to swallow as it is for them to prescribe. Thatcherism is falling apart on her heirs’ watch. But this should surprise no one: the idea that public services are better in private hands has always been a con.

It’s not that long ago that voices saying this were dismissed as ideological fantasists. Whenever we had the temerity to argue that the privatisation of our railways was the economics of the mad house, we were told we didn’t know what we were talking about. When we equated the Public Finance Initiative to borrowing from a loan shark, we were ridiculed.

But what’s happened at Virgin East Coast, like Carillon, or with the abysmal, costly failure of the Private Public Partnership in London Underground are not acts of god. Their collapses were all predicated on the entirely dodgy economics that underpin them. Our Exchequer is now saddled with huge debts from Tory borrowing and also hefty bills for countless bailouts of failed privateers.

It remains a great sadness to many in our rail industry that Labour’s 1997 victory did not mark a turning point in the delivery of our public services and investment in our infrastructure. New Labour was unwilling to undo Thatcher’s economic settlement and the party that should always be oriented to the needs of the many, delivered countless spoils for the few. 

Yet Labour’s transport secretary bucked that trend in 2009 when he booted National Express out of the industry for their failed franchise on the East Coast Mainline. And the company he established set the template and busted the deeply misleading myth that a public railway is not viable. Adonis deserves to be heard widely now on how to properly take back control of this vital pillar of British infrastructure. For him, like me, taking back control of our railways is a matter of political will in Westminster. Brexit won’t deliver it for us. But Labour have already committed to do so. And our last manifesto endures.

When even the Tories are having to accept rail nationalisation, it proves that public ownership is once again the mainstream economic antidote to natural monopolies. The market fundamentalist age is coming to its end. Rationality and economic efficiency are back. Labour’s economic team fully understand this. That’s why, from ending the scandal of privatisation of our public services, to making the state an active economic player, rather than simply a bystander, the tide of history continues to raise Corbyn’s Labour ship.

The myth of the so-called “invisible hand” of the market is exposed by the renationalisation of East Coast – by none other than the Conservatives. And by doing so, they are unintentionally demonstrating that public services must be run for people, not profit. But it falls to the next Labour government to usher in a state which does not shy away from intervening to overcome natural monopolies, market failure, and which pursues a proactive industrial strategy.

Only Labour are committed to an economy in which investment, both public and private, replaces the decimating, casino-like boom and bust of neoliberalism. So only Labour can create a country proudly acting as a beacon to the rest of the world by demonstrating the benefits of a new economic settlement which shifts power and wealth from the elites, to the overwhelming majority of working people. A Labour government committed to building a country in which, once again, trains do run on time and in which our economy is run for the benefit of the many – whatever your views on the Royal wedding, this is something everyone in our Labour family should rightly feel patriotic about.

Manuel Cortes is general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association

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