Passenger action groups across the country are staging a day of protest today against above-inflation fare rises on rail and bus services, and calling for a national referendum over re-nationalising the railways.
Rail commuters faced their first day back at work in 2020 today confronted by a fare hike of 2.7 per cent.
The Association of British Commuters said today, “For the last 10years, rail fares have been rising at twice the speed of wages. For many commuters on a lower income, this is more than just a matter of yearly injustice – they are being priced off the railway altogether.
“And for bus passengers, things are even worse. Bus fares are rising at an even higher rate than rail, according to government statistics published last month – a shocking 3.3 per cent. Unlike rail fares, bus fares outside of London are completely unregulated, meaning that bus companies can put up fares as and when they choose and do not even have to give a warning to passengers. Alongside the withdrawal of local investment and routes, this is pricing thousands of people out of bus travel, if they even have a service left at all.”
ABC argues that it needs to be national policy to encourage people to use public transport, instead of private motor vehicles to drive down pollution rates as “a matter of urgency; not just for climate change but for public health, social equality and regional development”.
ABC said today, “At a time when rail franchising is quite clearly collapsing, today’s 2.7 per cent fare rise is an outrage and another clear sign that the government and industry will continue to treat us as no more than a captive market, continuing to pay more while we are constantly receiving less.”
ABC has been particularly active around London and in south-east England, areas where rail passengers were badly affected by the commuter chaos caused by the timetable collapse in 2018.
Their campaigns, which have the backing of the transport unions, include opposing the removal of on-board guards on commuter services – a cost-cutting measure which would often make train journeys less accessible for passengers with disabilities.
Many feel that the rail service has never properly recovered from the “SouthernFail” crisis – the government-backed review of the failings of Southern Rail has still failed to deliver its final report, 18 months after the crisis.
“To this day Southern have not answered for the 2018 timetable crisis,” ABC said today.
“The reality of the Rail Review was nowhere near the ‘rail revolution’ promised. It had a narrow, ideological remit that excluded public ownership from the very start, and was also required to be ‘fiscally neutral’. The Rail Review that had begun by promising to ‘scrap franchising’ gradually lost all credibility as the government continued to award franchises regardless…
“Since the launch of the review in September 2018, Keith Williams has failed to report back. It is therefore without any public scrutiny that he approved the West Coast Partnership award to FirstGroup as ‘Williams compliant’ back in August.
“FirstGroup shareholders, meanwhile, have been assured in the financial press that their future in UK rail looks more lucrative, thanks to an arrangement that protects the company from risk. The Financial Times has said that this is ‘the first time in 10 years that a rail company has had financial protection’.” It is worth noting that FirstGroup are the private company which oversees the operation of the Croydon tram network.
ABC adds: “We are extremely concerned about the excessive influence of the rail industry lobby on the outcome of the rail review. The Rail Delivery Group is calling for a mix of management contracts, concession-style models, and competitive intercity franchising, along with the proposal of an organising body resembling the ‘Strategic Rail Authority’ that was abolished in 2006.
“With franchising failing, it stands to reason that private train companies will be seeking to keep franchising alive, and the example of the West Coast Partnership already does not bode well for the promised ‘rail revolution’.
“Passengers and taxpayers are being denied a proper, democratic conversation about the future of our public transport system, which, in the era of Brexit, is now at the point of a national emergency if we are to build the equitable country we want to see now, and in the future.
“At least two-thirds of the public support public ownership and we urgently need a way to depoliticise the debate and move it forward in the national and public interest. We’re launching this demand to initiate a proper debate about transport policy, and we’ll soon be starting a Parliamentary petition, with the aim of achieving a Parliamentary debate on the matter of a public ownership referendum. We believe this is one of the few tools we have left for any kind of democratic conversation, most especially, the urgent need for scrutiny of the government’s plans for a new White Paper based on the Williams Review.
“Over the next few months, we’ll be calling not only for a referendum, but for citizens assemblies and other forums to have a sensible, honest and expert discussion about the future we want for our country. The time of both climate and social crisis in transport is now, and we cannot afford to wait any longer.”
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