03/09/2017 Rail chaos
Our members handed out leaflets and chatted to commuters about their experiences of rail travel to and from Totnes. We heard about trains delayed, cancelled, and overcrowded. The return trains from Birmingham and Bristol are particularly bad on a weekday evening, with passengers often having to stand in toilets for lack of space, and regular delays of over an hour.
One passenger expressed frustration that it was cheaper to drive, or even to fly to some destinations from the South West. Another made the connection with creeping privatisation of the NHS, saying that ‘nothing is valued any more unless it makes a profit’. This passenger is not alone: a recent independent poll found that two thirds of voters support bringing the railways back into public ownership.
This July saw the release of a Government document that described the South West as one of the ‘extremities’ of the rail service and proposed cuts to services across the region, from Torbay to Penzance. GWR has proposed replacing high speed trains between Exeter and Bristol with a stopping service, leaving only Cross Country operating a fast connection.
Beyond the South West, the East Coast Mainline was taken back into public ownership this summer, and 15,000 trains were cancelled or delayed in a botched timetable upgrade. In August, commuters learned that fares will rise by up to 3.2% in the new year, making the cost of an Anytime day return from Totnes to London around £285.
An annual ticket from Totnes to Bristol now costs £6,336.00. In contrast, German passengers can travel the entire rail network and on local buses for just €4270 a year. To add insult to injury, Deutsch Bahn – which runs the super-efficient German rail network and is majority owned by the German government – profits from running six UK rail franchises including Arriva and Cross Country. This allows rail travel in Germany to be further subsidised. Fares in Britain have risen by 42% since 2008, but average weekly pay has gone up by only 18% according to the TUC. Franchise shareholders at least £165m in dividends last year, when overall taxpayer subsidy to the rail industry reached £3.5bn.
Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has called the annual fare increases ‘an insult to everyone who has suffered from the chaos on Britain’s railways’. While Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and Network Rail bosses were blaming each other for the crisis, Corbyn reaffirmed Labour’s pledge to bring the railways back into public ownership. Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, suggested in a recent interview that under Labour, franchises would be nationalised as they came up for renewal: ‘we want to ensure full integration, because that will bring efficiencies. It will mean a more effective and a safer railway.’
The weak railtrack at Dawlish is a serious threat to our infrastructure and competitiveness in the South West, yet propsals from Plymouth’s MP Luke Pollard to investigate an alternative route have been sidelined. At the last General Election, Labour pledged £2.5bn for the biggest improvement programme the South West rail network has seen in 40 years. This would include investments in the track around Dawlish, signalling upgrades, and electrification across the region, providing faster journeys and better resilience to bad weather.