The People vs. the Railway Establishment

Rail passengers aren't consumers who can choose one brand of train or station over another. Far from it - we're fish in a barrel waiting to be shot at.

National Political and Policy Manager


The people behind Britain’s lucrative privatised rail network haven’t had a good time of late.

Last Thursday, the Department for Transport official responsible for rail franchising, Peter Wilkinson, stood up at a party political meeting and said train drivers should ‘get the hell out of my industry’ if they didn’t agree with him. In a bizarre rant to a room of Tory activists, he imagined winning a future punch up with rail staff, who he reportedly described as ‘muppets’.

The week before, the Public Accounts Committee released a report, backed up by the independent National Audit Office that tore into the current system of rail franchising, under which private operators compete for the right to run particular sets of routes.

It found that the Department for Transport struggles to run franchise competitions, that the franchise competitions if they were run don’t have many private operators who would want to bid for them and crucially, that the system  leaves passengers none the wiser as to what, if any, benefits they might get at some stage in the ill-defined future.

Not to be left out, in the same week Network Rail – under increasingly tight control from the Department of Transport – revealed plans to sell off some of our most used and important stations to the highest bidder.

So a private franchising system which even independent bodies agree is not working, managed by Department staff who threaten employees, who report to Ministers who clearly believe that anything which isn’t bolted to the floor (in this case the actual track) should be sold to those looking to turn a quick profit. Is that supposed to be the way forward?

The Co-operative Party does not subscribe to that vision. We believe that employees and passengers must be further involved in the governance of our system.

For several years the People’s Rail Campaign has articulated a vision of mutual ownership in place of control by the private sector and ‘Whitehall knows best’ bureaucrats.

After all, it is our system and our money which pays for it, either through taxes or tickets. Selling off stations in order to pay for outsourced contracts and over-inflated salaries does not do the travelling public any favours.

Our railways are not a game of Monopoly. We reject the view that with the roll of the dice someone should be able to land on Kings Cross and turn a quick profit by squeezing revenue from anyone unlucky enough to have to use it.

Publicly owned assets should be accountable to the public who owns them and locked to ensure that they remain so for future generations. We are not consumers who can chose to use one brand of trains or stations over another – right now, we are fish in a barrel waiting to be shot at.

So for the prevailing establishment of the UK’s privatised rail network, it hasn’t been a good couple of weeks. One story after another has underscored the Co-operative Party’s call for a ‘People’s Railway’, one which closely involves passengers and employees in its decision making.