Is a people’s co-op ScotRail possible?


By Roz Paterson

Happy new year to all public transport users! Alas, your numbers are dwindling, as new figures show that two thirds of working Scots eschew buses and trains in favour of commuting by car, a depressingly downward trend in public transport usage at a time when the effects of climate change are literally on our doorsteps, and a serious change in travel habits is urgently required.

By Roz Paterson

Happy new year to all public transport users! Alas, your numbers are dwindling, as new figures show that two thirds of working Scots eschew buses and trains in favour of commuting by car, a depressingly downward trend in public transport usage at a time when the effects of climate change are literally on our doorsteps, and a serious change in travel habits is urgently required.

What could curb our addiction to the car – a method of transport that, though costing the environment and human health dearly, often works out cheaper than any other form of commute, thanks to the drop, year on year, in car running and ownership costs?

How about a rail network that had stations where we needed them, fares we could easily afford, a timetable that suited our needs, and a staff that were motivated by a sense of ownership as well as public service? A ‘People’s Railway’, in other words.

I give you Professor Paul Salveson, a former railway guard on the Settle-Carlisle line, now a writer, lecturer, and political activist, dubbed the ‘Railway Professor’ for his informed and sustained championing of a community-owned and run railway network. Following his 2013 publication, Railpolitik – Bringing Railways back to Communities, Paul recently launched a report on ScotRail, and its potential as a cooperatively-run enterprise.

Supported by Aslef, the Co-operative party, and SERA, the Socialist Environmentalist Resources Association, Paul’s report advocates that communities, passengers and employees work together to shape a railway where profits are reinvested, rather than handed out to shareholders, and the network is owned by passengers/customers, like the Co-op; or by the workers, like the John Lewis Partnership; or by both, like the Mondragon co-op enterprise in the Basque country.

Few people are going to argue with that; some 78 per cent, according to a recent Co-operative Party survey, support the idea of a railway run in the people’s interests, as a public service, rather than as a business serving rich owners. Well, apart from the Westminster government, of course, who are ideologically committed to the idea of privatisation, even when it flies in the face of the facts.

Take the East Coast Main line, currently run by the state-owned Directly Operated Railways (DOR), following the emergency decision by National Express to surrender the franchise due to ‘poor trading conditions’ within other areas of the NE group. DOR was the ‘operator of last resort’, yet has managed to generate £800million in profits since 2009, every penny of which has gone to the Treasury.

As well as being clearly competent, having out-performed all previous franchise-holders, DOR is a popular option with passengers, with a record-breaking level of customer satisfaction. Yet the government is determined to re-privatise the line, and soon, by the end of 2014 at the latest.

Says Paul: “DOR is a crisis mechanism, and we need a more stable, accountable body, not run by the UK government but operating at a devolved level.”

In other words, let’s not wait for private franchisees to crash and burn, but agitate for something comprehensive at the outset. Scotland’s rail network comprises 350 stations, 2776 km of track, 25 per cent of which is electrified, 60 per cent commuter, but stretching to Kyle of Lochalsh, Thurso and Mallaig, and incorporating some of the remotest, most scenic routes in Europe.

Paul proposes that the Scottish government take control of the ScotRail franchise when it comes up for renewal in 2015.

As it is a franchise, taking control would not cost the tax-payer a penny, and would prove less expensive than the current model, which was subsidised to the tune of £511million in 2013/14, despite the fact that none of the subsequent profits found their way into Scottish government coffers.

However, Paul is not calling for a return to the monolithic state model of British Rail, which was run over the heads of both its employees and passengers. Despite this, BR did engender a sense of public service amongst its staff, which has never quite gone and which could be revived, Paul believes, at the first whiff of co-operative values of ownership and community involvement/support.

If you examine the converse, for instance amongst hospital cleaners – formerly NHS workers and now employed by privately-run operatives – the sense of pride in their work, and of belonging, is lost, and with it some of the goodwill and loyalty engendered by such values.

Now look at Lothian Buses, which remains 100 per cent publicly-owned, the Edinburgh City Council holding 91 per cent of shares, the others held by adjoining local authorities. It made £8million in profit in 2012, none of which went to private shareholders, and its focus is not profits but areas such as social inclusion, and breaking down barriers to young people using public transport.

Once the rail franchise was restored to public hands, we could work on devolving its management to a micro-level, involving workers, passengers and communities. 

If the workers are on board, experience suggests a more motivated workforce, less staff absence, better ideas and more commitment to making them workable.  If passengers are on board, you have more users, more fares paid, less traffic on the road. If communities are on board, you could have stations that are also community hubs, with shops, community centres, tourist information points, and so on.

Some of these ideas are already running, for instance in Beauly, in Inverness-shire, the station that closed in 1960 was re-opened in 2002, and such was the community response that a 75 per cent reduction in commuter traffic was recorded. A decade later, the station at Conon Bridge was re-opened, to ease congestion on the Kessock Bridge. In its first month, this tiny rural line operating a restricted timetable saw 2000 passenger journeys.

In Pitlochry, thanks to ScotRail’s Adopt-a-Station scheme, empty station buildings now house a thriving second-hand bookshop and cafe, making it a stopping-off point for tourists and bibliophiles, as well as a welcome local amenity. Not that such schemes should be left to voluntarism, which generally favour communities that are affluent.

Rail management needs to reach out, and draw the community in. Station management could overlap, for instance, with planning departments; why exactly do we not favour housing developments around stations and other public transport hubs? In an age of Peak Oil and climate change, the days of car-dependent urban sprawl are surely numbered.

If the government of the day baulks at government ownership, says Paul, then at least it could soften up the Invitation to Tender (ITT), by including a bias towards social benefits, not just ‘efficient’ operational costs. To be fair, and Paul likes to be fair, the SNP’s ITT is an improvement on its predecessors, taking up issues of lower fares, lower emissions, and investment, and extending an invitation to social enterprise bidders.

However, with regards to this latter, equality of opportunity must be matched with equality of support to take up this opportunity; in short, given that it costs about £10-12million just to make a bid, pretty much all social enterprises are priced out the market from the outset. How about a wee grant for social enterprises, to enable them to make a viable bid?

He further urges that the ITT should propose a ten year contract for the successful bidder, and a 15 year one for the Sleeper service, to encourage long-term investment, and create stability. A people’s railway is not as out-of-reach as it may seem, and with independence, we would shake off the legacy of the Railways Act 1993, which inflicted privatisation on our rail network whether we liked it or not (we didn’t). With a will, and a vision such as Paul’s, of cooperative values and progressive planning, we could at last be on the right tracks.


Courtesy of the Scottish Socialist Voice