Gravy Trains, Strikes, Tickets to Ride

Although the implications of Brexit and Trump’s presidency should concern us all there are a plethora of others matters that need our continued attention. One such issue is the railways. According to The Office of Rail and Road, in 2015-16, the total amount of government subsidy – the money we pay to the rail companies, despite the railways having been privatised in 1994 – was £3.999 billion. Furthermore, 7/8 of that amount was taken as profit by private train operators. 

At the same time passengers are saddled with increasing overcrowding, delays, cancellations, strikes and among the highest ticket prices in Europe (the last increase, an average of 2.3% (but much higher in some areas) was introduced at the beginning of 2017). Add to this the fact that rail fares have already increased by 56% in the past ten years, resulting in commuters paying up to 14% of their wages on travel, in comparison with Germany, France and Spain, where commuters may pay as little as 2%-4%. Just a few examples from an investigation by the Daily Mirror, reported by Vox Political:

£1,300,000: Stagecoach chief exec Martin Griffiths received this last year. The firm has made £659million profit over 10 years

£1,787,000: David Martin, Arriva’s ex-chief exec, walked away after getting this much in 2015… and he got £1.6million in 2014

£7,000,000: Tim O’Toole, chief executive of First Group plc, has been handed this massive sum over the past five years

£479million: The huge dividend handed out by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin UK Holdings

Overall, the 10 private firms involved in running train services made £407m in profits in just the last year:

Unlike most private ventures, train operators also benefit from having no risk. So if an operator runs into financial trouble, the government will simply not renew their contract. This means that when a private rail firm does well, it is the company’s shareholders who profit. But when a private rail firm fails, it is the taxpayer who picks up the bill. The fact that the government has continued to fund the rail network has hidden the true cost of privatisation. It’s also meant that private firms have been able to profit from commuters while taxpayers have funded the infrastructure.

But the situation has changed in the past five years, as austerity measures have seen rail subsidies cut by 24% (or £1.1bn). Funding from passengers, meanwhile, has increased by 17% (or £1.2bn). All of which means that the price of privatisation has been laid bare for all to see.

For all of the above and more see Vox Political The gravy train: Rail firms make £3.5 billion profit – from OUR subsidy – while the service fails 04/01/17

Add to this the fact that more and more of our railways are being sold to companies abroad:

The sale of the London to Essex franchise sees Italy join Germany, Holland and France in taking over British rail services to make profits and subsidise their own state owned rail operations.

Now Trenitalia, the Netherlands’ Abellio, France’s Keolis and Germany’s Deutsche Bahn — owner of Arriva — operate a whopping 70 per cent of Britain’s rail services. Rail workers quickly condemned the latest sale. Transport union RMT general secretary Mick Cash said:

The government should be hanging their heads in shame and this latest scandal ramps up the case for public ownership of our rail network. Britain’s railways are being sold off to European state-owned outfits with the profits from our fares — among the highest in Europe — subsidising operations abroad. Privatisation has failed passengers and the public by hitting their pockets and providing poor service and left foreign state train operators laughing all the way to the bank. The case for public ownership of UK rail to end this racket is now overwhelming. 

See Morning Star Italy Picks Up C2C To Join The British Rail Cash Grab 12/01/17

A few years ago, with my friend and colleague Gillian Reynolds, I researched and wrote about experiences of and perceptions about the railways.

We conducted 100+ face-to-face and online interviews with three groups of people:Train_Tracks_by_Gayle_Letherby.jpg

  • Rail travels experience of being on a train – for work and for leisure

  • Rail workers experience of working on the railway

  • Rail enthusiasts – view of trains and train travel

Additionally we drew on our own experience as long-time train lovers and travellers and our own discipline, sociology, and other writings from railway studies and cultural studies. Our data showed that the train is more than just a vehicle that gets us from A to B but rather a space and place in its own right where work and leisure takes place, friendships are made, and about which political discussions take place.

Ian Marchant (2003: 306-7) suggests that there are two railway systems – a real railway and a railway of our imagination ‘One railway, the railway that you sit on every morning to another … pointless day in a drab office… is the fruit of political corruption, institutional indifference and short-term profiteering. No one loves it, because it is unlovable.

The other railway, the romantic railway, the railway of memory and dreams… is deeply lovable because it isn’t entirely real’. We agreed and alongside love for Thomas the tank Engine, Brief Encounter and the Dawlish line we heard of anger and distress at overcrowding, dangerous practices (including lack of access to guards/train managers) and lack of investment in, not least, South West Rail. Thus:

Both historically and to date – pre- and post Beeching, before and after privatization – those who control the railways have been concerned to make money, and those who work and travel on the railways have wanted to contribute to, and experience, a comfortable and speedy service. At the same time, though, the railway has held – and does hold – a special charm for many people. We could argue, as do some writers, that nostalgia is a dangerous thing that distracts us from wider social and political concerns. Conscious of we are of the significance of safety and risk, environmental awareness, efficiency and reliability, power and control within space and place, we cautiously propose that there is enough about the train and train travel that is exciting and enriching to suggest the continued survival of the nostalgic railway of our dreams over the railway of consumerism and quality.

(Letherby and Reynolds 2005:194)

Since we published our book prices have gone up and in many ways the service has got worse. For one example read this article about Paralympic Anne Wafula Strike who was forced to urinate on herself having no access to a suitable toilet - see Guardian Paralympian forced to wet herself on train without accessible toilet 02/01/17

Transport is an important part of discussions of austerity. Reliable, safe, comfortable and affordable public transport broadens employees’ job prospects and provides a wider pool of potential employees. As train travel becomes increasingly unaffordable things get worse for everyone. And there are other things to worry us. As the government and the right wing mainstream media tries to persuade us that the Southern rail strikes are not about safety, even, in one scandalous piece, comparing strikers to terrorists and tells us that in siding with the unions the leader of the opposition is against ‘ordinary’ people. A guard on the train, as rail workers and rail users agree, is essential for safety, security and accessibility reasons. Watch this if you’re not convinced Woman praises train guard after racist attack BBC News Scotland 04/01/17.

Defending his support for rail workers and passengers Jeremy Corbyn said:

I would rather stand on a picket line for a safely staffed railway than stand with the fat cat rail bosses charging rail passengers an arm and a leg.

Labour is committed to a better service for all.


Letherby, G. and Reyolds, G. (2005) Train Tracks: work, play and politics on the railways London: Berg

Marchant, I. (2003) Parallel Lines: Or Journeys on the Railways of Dreams London: Bloomsbury

For more from this writer see: Arwenack Creatives | Gayle Letherby's Blog

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