The UK’s rail unions will join colleagues from across Europe in Strasbourg today (25 February) to protest against European Commission (EC) plans to impose the privatisation of rail passenger services across Europe.
MEPs in Strasbourg will be debating and voting on the Fourth Railway Package. Proposals in the package include making the tendering of rail passenger services obligatory, and imposing the separation of train operation from infrastructure management in every EU member state.
The demonstration against the Fourth Rail Package will take place in front of the European Parliament at 1pm and representatives from the unions’ Action for Rail campaign – including the ASLEF, the RMT, TSSA and Unite – will all attend.
The EC’s proposals could permanently expand the control that overseas rail companies will have over the UK’s rail services, Action for Rail warns, and will impose the UK’s model of privatised and fragmented rail passenger services – which has created huge inefficiency and escalated costs – across Europe.
Action for Rail also believes that the package will make it impossible for any UK government to adopt an alternative to privatisation, ruling out successful publicly-owned and run services such as the East Coast Mainline. Customer satisfaction rates for the line are amongst the highest for train operating companies in the UK, the company provides an income of up to £800m to the Treasury and since 2011 it has received 35 industry awards.
While the UK government has ruled out public ownership of the railways at home, Action for Rail is concerned that foreign state-owned rail companies are using this as an opportunity to make a profit. Of existing UK rail companies, Arriva is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the German national rail company Deutsche Bahn, Keolis is majority owned by the French national rail operator SNCF, and Abellio is owned by the Dutch state operator Nederlandse Spoorwegen.
According to a recent study by the Centre for Research on Socio-Economic Change for Arriva Trains Wales, subsidy exceeds private revenue from fares, with the state contributing 60p in every £1 of revenue. The report finds that privatisation is not value for money for UK taxpayers as Virgin West Coast Trains would not make a profit from the West Coast Mainline without state support, and Arriva Trains Wales would not run at all. Since the start of the franchise in 2003, Arriva and Deutsche Bahn (Deutsche Bahn AG acquired Arriva in 2010) have extracted £75 million in dividends.
Government plans to privatise East Coast Mainline could see the company taken over by Keolis and Eurostar through their joint bid. Action for Rail argues it would be far more efficient for rail services to be directly run and operated by the public sector.
Action for Rail argues that the emphasis on privatisation goes against public demand. A YouGov Poll from November 2013 found that two-thirds (66 per cent) of respondents wanted the railways to be run by the public sector, compared to less than a quarter (23 per cent) wanting it to be run privately. Former Secretary of State for Transport, Lord Adonis, has spoken in favour of the East Coast Mainline remaining in public hands and Alastair Campbell has recently suggested that the Labour Party should re-nationalising the railways.
Chair of Action for Rail and TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Imposing the rail privatisation system that is so clearly failing in the UK across Europe would be a disaster for passengers and taxpayers alike.
“Today we are urging MEPs to vote against the damaging Fourth Railway Package which will entrench and extend UK rail privatisation and overseas control of the UK’s railways.
“We have real concerns that if these proposals are adopted future UK governments will be unable to create a publicly-owned railway that puts passengers and public first like the successful East Coast Main Line.”
ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan said: ‘In the UK we are still learning and suffering from the harsh lessons of the flawed model that the European Commission now wants to impose on Europe. In the interests of passenger safety, proper investment, a properly integrated and publicly-accountable railway network, I urge MEPs to reject these proposals.”
RMT General Secretary Bob Crow said: “This rail package demands that the disastrous rail privatisation experiment that started in Britain 20 years ago is now imposed on the rest of the EU through compulsory competitive tendering, fragmentation and open access competition.
“As a result of this EU business model Britain now has the highest rail fares in Europe, a culture of cuts and profiteering and the growing use of contract labour and zero-hour contracts.
“That is no future for public transport here or anywhere else in Europe. We need publicly-owned and accountable transport services that serve people before profit.”
TSSA General Secretary Manuel Cortes said: “Rail passengers in the UK are still paying dearly for the Tories disastrous sell off of our public railway 20 years ago. Fares have more than doubled and are now the highest in Europe.
“Our fragmented private network has turned into a taxpayer funded junkie, needing over £4 billion a year in public funding fixes just to keep going. It would be economic madness if the rest of Europe now adopted this dysfunctional system.”
Unite National Officer Julia Long said: “UK commuters spend over three times more of their salary on rail fares than European colleagues. Why on earth is the EC now planning to impose the privatisation of rail passenger services across Europe?
“MEPs must vote against these alarming and misguided proposals and tell the Commission it is on the wrong track.
“British commuters are being ripped off by sky high train fares which have been caused by privatisation. These proposals are bad news for commuters across the rest of Europe and could prevent the UK from looking at alternatives to privatisation.”