Behold, the miraculous wonder of the private sector, delivering efficiency, competition, quality and a good deal for the consumer! Britain’s increasingly discredited pro-market dogma is on a collision course with reality, and nowhere more vividly than our shambolic rail system. On the eve of privatisation in 1993, John Major claimed that “a better, cheaper and more effective service for the commuter” beckoned.
Fast forward 25 years, and commuters are facing average fare hikes of 3.4% – with season tickets jumping by 3.6%: the biggest increase since 2013. And this, in a county where workers have suffered the longest squeeze in wages in generations.
While the cheapest single ticket to the capital will cost a British commuter 50p per mile, German passengers are paying just 19p a mile. According to TUC research, British passengers commuting from Chelmsford to London are shelling out 13% of their salary on travel; a French worker travelling from Étampes to Paris will see only 2% of their wage packet eaten up by the cost.
And for so many Britons, their miserable lot is paying extortionate sums for an overcrowded commute, pressed against the bodies of other understandably grumpy passengers. Government plans to consider linking future price hikes to a lower level of inflation is a woefully inadequate response. Other wealthy nations manage to provide decent quality rail travel at an affordable price: but then, rather than flog this critical national service to profiteers, they’ve maintained them under public ownership. The government does allow state ownership of some rail and energy services – but only if they are foreign governments who are not accountable to British citizens.
The answer is to bring the rail franchises back under public control – as was successfully done with East Coast before it was idiotically sold off – as part of an integrated, modernised system. No more dividends for shareholders: all the money to be reinvested back into this critical service.
This disastrous experiment sums up so many of the Tories’ woes. Their fundamentalist pro-market dogma keeps colliding with the lived experience of millions of people: from the terrible cuts to living standards which followed the financial crash, to the failed privatisation of the utilities. The miserable state of our railways is another reminder that the economic system has failed – and must be replaced.
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist