As I write, I am sitting on a stationary Arriva Wales train from Cardiff Central to Manchester Piccadilly which has been stranded in Newport for the past two hours. The reason? There is a train in front that is so out of date that it physically does not have the power to move up a fairly steep hill. That is the position British trains are in at the moment. While a refund is certain to be coming the way of myself and fellow tired passengers, it is little benefit after many of us have missed transfers. While this evidence is anecdotal, I am certainly not unique in the situation I am in at the moment.
So what can be done to solve the mess British trains are in at the moment? Jeremy Corbyn believes nationalisation is the solution we have been looking for. He argues that by putting trains in the hands of central government, trains will be quicker, more reliable, and more comfortable for passengers. After all, no one wants to be left sitting on the floor do they? However, putting this in the hands of government means handing control of the trains to any potential future Conservative government. They are then free to cut there way to getting the justification they need to sell them off back to the private sector. And we are then back to square one, with more dormant trains stuck in Newport.
So if nationalisation will not work, what will? The solution is simple: place control of the trains into the hands of the people who rely on them for transport, for jobs, and for their livelihoods. This is something the Co-op party has been advocating for decades, however many disgruntled passengers are completely unaware of this system. ‘It is how it is’ they say; but ‘how it is’ simply is not delivering for the people of Britain. An alternative is needed, and this is it.
How it works is simple. Instead of a small executive committee made up of people who do not even use the trains they own making decisions about our railways, a board of accountable governors, who are elected by staff and passengers, decide what routes to run and how to allocate income. Instead of profits being spent on bonuses and record wages for executives, it is distributed to members and/or reinvested to improve services. As is the co-operative model, members decide where the money goes and in what proportion. And as has been seen in Welsh Water, the vast majority of members are in favour of spending most, if not all, profits on improving infrastructure.
The first benefit of this is glaringly obvious: it leads to a better service. Quicker, cleaner, and more reliable trains will come as a direct result of mutual ownership. Private ownership means the priority is to maximise profits, which means that there is a disincentive to invest in improving the railway system. With community ownership, the people making the decisions are the people who have a direct stake in trains running on time consistently. This means the priority will be to make the railway system as smooth and reliable for passengers as possible. When you take the priority of profits out of the equation, a more streamlined service is achieved.
Also, a co-operatively owned railway system promotes community engagement just as a local campaign to save a primary school would. By feeling a sense of empowerment, local people come together for the good of the local community. Community ownership projects unite people around a common cause and creates a kinder local area. In the bigger picture, this leads to a lower crime rate – especially anti-social behaviour – and creates tight community ties. It may not seem obvious, but any community ownership project has been proven to build bridges between people and create more sociable societies.
Financially, mutualised trains lower fare prices and lead to more disposable income – especially for those worse-off. For commuters who rely on train links to simply get to work every day, hundreds of pounds can be spent every month for the privilege of being on a ram-packed train which may or may not show up on time, or at all. By giving the powers of setting ticket prices to the people who pay them, fares are proved to be lower. Just look at our European neighbours; fares are at times four times lower than ours for comparable journeys in countries which have an alternative railway system to private ownership. For staff, a mutual model leads to better wages and a fairer way of working. With a guaranteed position on the board which governs rail franchises, employees have their voice and can make the decisions about the way they work. Instead of pay cuts and redundancies, which lead to industrial action, trains would be run consistently and with happy staff managing them.
For lower fares, more reliable services, and more comfortable trains, a mutualised railway system has to be enforced. Instead of increasing the budget deficit by giving control to Whitehall, where ministers and civil servants are by no means guaranteed to run services any better than Virgin, let’s empower local communities by giving them control over their railways systems.
As I fill in my compensation claims form, of which the train conductor has run out of, while coming to the end of my ordeal, I see how much better our train services can and should be. I will soon be home, however you can guarantee that this will not be the last incident of its sort that I and countless others will experience. Economically, socially, and politically, it is obvious that the great solution to our railway woes is mutualisation. This will empower communities and create a better system for all who use it. Let’s remove control of the trains from private companies and protect them from any future government by handing the power over to the people who need and use them.
James Cleverley is a candidate in the 23 and under section in the Progress strategy board elections. He tweets @JamesCleverley1