As founder of the Bring Back British Rail campaign, Harrison was invited to write about the public ownership of our railways for the Green Party of England & Wales’s The New Home Front II (p.41-42) in 2012, which looks to the post-war period for lessons on how to tackle climate change now. (Word count: 709)
It is essential to remind ourselves that transportation is not just a question of how an individual gets from A to B. It is a social question; an ethical question. For an outstanding public transport system (based on a fully integrated train, tram and bus network) offers the potential to help solve many of the problems we face – from climate change, to inequality and social unrest. Not only could it prove vital in reducing CO2 emissions by supplanting many of the individual journeys made by car and plane, but it could also improve the living environment in our cities, offer us better air quality and assist with social cohesion, as people from all walks of life become accustomed to travelling together.
There is no better place to look for this reminder than post war Britain. It’s no coincidence that British Railways was inaugurated in 1948, the same year as our National Heath Service. Both were part of the Labour government’s revolution inspired and supported by the real sense of community engendered by the war effort, to ensure that government had control over the infrastructure it needed to provide the essential services that we all need to live happily and well (health care, transport, communications and fuel).
These huge initiatives were driven by a desire for moral success and progress, rather than financial. On opening the NHS, Nye Bevan declared that it made us ‘the moral leaders of the world’. Even in this stricken, bankrupt war torn country there was a clear future vision. The founding statement of our new publicly owned rail service proclaiming “Plans for modernisation and improvements are ready and are being carried into effect as materials become available. Difficulties will be overcome; the plan is to make British Railways the best in the world.”
Prior to British Railways, our trains were run by lots of privately owned companies. Although these had been responsible for building the foundations of the system as a means of facilitating the Industrial Revolution, they had left our country with a railway network that suffered from uneven regional investment and lacked an overall cohesive structure or long-term plan for development. This core public service had been left to the whim of private interest. And yet, since the misguided and opportunistic privatisation of our railways in 1993, we have allowed ourselves to retreat on the moral ambition of our ancestors and have been left with an expensive and dysfunctional public transport system as a result.
Think of the frustrations you have experienced buying tickets and travelling on our trains today and dare to imagine a radical policy – the creation of a fully integrated public transport system spanning the nation, run by proud employees as a service for the people. Imagine knowing that you could walk up and buy a ticket to go anywhere in the country at a fair price. Imagine a universal and comprehensive ‘National Rail Service’, providing the basic human need to travel to work and for leisure. How much less stressful would this be? How many more journeys would you choose to make by train?
The two commonly cited hurdles – public support for the idea and cost – are not in fact hurdles at all. The popularity of the Bring Back British Rail campaign (and others like it) shows that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the present system and a massive desire for a radical rethink of the way our railways are run. And there is clear evidence (in the recent Rebuilding Rail report and other influential / critical studies) that renationalising the system – removing the inefficiency and added bureaucracy caused by dividing it up into so many competing ‘franchises’, not to mention the private profits continually being leaked out – would actually save us billions each year. The only real challenge is convincing those in power that there are some things in life – some basic public services – which should remain ring fenced from the profiteers. We need to popularise the notion of nationalisation, so that it no longer a dirty word but rather plain common sense. Because this is the only way we can be sure that we – the people – have the control necessary to build that outstanding public transport system, which will make all our lives better in the future.