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ATOC: 18 years to meet us, yet nothing new to say

4 March 2013

In the last week of January, almost 20 years to the day since the hapless John Major and his Transport Secretary John MacGregor published the 1993 Railways Act, the railway unions met with the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) for the very first time. ATOC wanted to discuss our recent pronouncements on fare increases and public subsidy.

As you may be aware, the legislation which sold off our railways had a tortuous journey through Parliament before finally passing on 5 November 1993. Rail privatisation was then – and continues to be – very controversial. Unfortunately, those events of 20 years ago were just the opening salvo in what has clearly been an unmitigated disaster for passengers and taxpayers alike.

John MacGregor, told the House of Commons in February 1993, ‘I see no reason why fares should increase faster under the new system. In many cases, they will be more flexible and will be reduced’. Yet, recently published data by the House of Commons Transport Select Committee shows that average rail fares have more than doubled – an increase of over 102 per cent since 1995. In addition, taxpayers have been helping foot the bill for the spiralling costs that fragmentation introduced into our industry as public subsidy has increased fourfold. In the year to April 2012, a staggering £3.88bn of support was required. Rail fares expert Barry Doe has recently unveiled figures which show that some walk-on fares have increased by more than three times the rate of inflation since 1995 – an eye- watering 208 per cent!

Given all of this, you would have thought that the collective voice for train operators would have tried to strike a conciliatory tone when we met - nothing could be further from the truth. ATOC seems to be like the alcoholic who can’t admit they have a problem. In what was largely a pre- prepared statement read to us by its Chair, they claimed that everything we said on fares or public subsidy was either untrue or misleading. How can this possibly be the case? Our information comes from either the Department for Transport, the House of Commons or from their very own National Rail Enquiries website. Frankly, if franchise agreements were not shrouded in secrecy, we may have had greater access to better data. However, transparency is not ATOC’s forte. Their members repeatedly refuse to release details of franchise agreements under so called ‘commercial confidentiality’ – complete nonsense when taxpayers’ money is at stake!

There was at least one positive outcome of this rather fruitless exchange. The reason why ATOC wants us to shut up is because our message is clearly catching the public mood. As I said to its Chair, it has taken 18 years and many requests for you to agree to meet with the unions – why on earth would we stop the campaign that has made it possible? Of course, we won’t! Instead, we will turn the volume up even louder. We launched Together for Transport on the basis of seeking to empower public transport users, with Better Rail and Action for Rail providing a clear voice from rail workers in this debate. It is clear that this strategy is already starting to pay handsome dividends. It is the growing public discontent which made ATOC, all of a sudden, wish to speak to the rail unions.

Let’s face it, we have a broken franchise system and passengers have had more than enough of rip-off fares. The Government’s recent decision to offer short-term contract extensions to train operators appears all too convenient. It means many franchise decisions may well be pushed back beyond the general election. In other words, Ministers have put the future structure of our railways in the ‘too difficult’ box.

As you well know, public ownership is the only sane way out of this expensive madness. Growing passenger anger provides our biggest potential ally in making this a reality. Our aim is to help build a rail users’ movement with enough power to have an impact on the outcome of the next general election. We want to galvanise passengers’ anger into a powerful force, that if need be, can compel what will hopefully be an incoming Labour administration into running our railways in the interests of passengers and not for the benefit of shareholders!

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