On Tuesday, as the annual rail fare increases were announced, protestors and trade unions gathered with Jeremy Corbyn at London Bridge station calling for public ownership of railways.
Meanwhile, across London and away from the limelight, We Own It were drawing attention Network Rail’s plans to sell off huge parts of its assets. If this plan goes ahead it would make the public ownership dream all but impossible to achieve.
Network Rail’s plans involve selling off vast swathes of stations, bits of track, electricity substations and communications networks. Stations that could be sold off include some of the most iconic civic buildings in the UK: Liverpool Lime Street, Edinburgh Waverley, Manchester Piccadilly, London Waterloo. They claim they need to sell these assets to make money to pay down their debt. But research by We Own It revealed that the true long term cost of approach far outweighs any short-term pay off.
The research, written by Transport for Quality of Life, suggested that whilst asset sales could make £1.8bn for Network Rail (and pay down a tiny portion of their debt) this would cost £10bn in the long term through a combination of fees for arranging the sale, managing the increased fragmentation that results and missing out on the long-term sources of revenue that places like stations can provide.
The Office of Rail and Road has also questioned the policy of selling off commercial property that brings in income for the railway, saying it has not seen any ‘convincing reasons’ for the government’s approach. And that’s before we consider the cultural value of the stations, and the accountability and transparency that public ownership brings.
But above all, there’s the fact that people across the UK overwhelmingly want to see the railways in public hands. At the last count, a full two-thirds (66%) of the public would support it. Put another way, if there was a referendum tomorrow, we’d win hands down.
Selling off bits of track and fragmenting the rail network is only going to make this much harder (and costly) to achieve. So whilst services get worse, and fares go up, let’s make sure that the rail infrastructure is a part of the debate. In essence, if we want a long term solution, selling off these assets makes no sense. And long term solutions are what we need because people will always need the railways.
That was certainly the message we took to Network Rail, alongside 16,000 signatures to a petition calling on them to abandon their plans to sell off these parts of their infrastructure. And in fairness to Network Rail, they were willing to listen to our concerns and those of the public – so watch this space.
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