Why public transport is broken

As rail users are once again hit by fare increases, with one season ticket topping £10,000, Tom Haines-Doran discusses the damage that privatisation continues to do to public transport and the examples of resistance we can look to

Photo: Ian Allinson

You might think public transport has largely escaped austerity, particularly if you live in London or have heard of plans for an expensive new high speed rail line, HS2.

Yet, little noticed behind the media’s exaltation of George Osborne’s Spending Review, was a 37% cut in the Department for Transport budget – the largest of any department. This includes subsidies to rail, buses and walking and cycling facilities. Public transport will also be hit by further cuts to local authority budgets.[1] These cuts are highly political. They will accelerate the growing gap between rich and poor and increase emissions responsible for global warming, since transport is the greatest contributor to climate change.[2]

Transport inequalities

A quarter of households in the UK have no access to a car, and only a third have access to two or more.[3] Consequently, masses of people have to travel by other means, and do so within a society and infrastructure constructed around the use of private motorised transport.

This impacts most heavily on lower income groups. Half of the poorest 20% of households have no access to a car, compared to 15% of households in the highest 20% income group. Car owners are able to travel further and more frequently.[4] Controversies over the availability and affordability of public transport are therefore crucial sites of class struggle, and are intimately connected to questions of work, education and housing.

Where you live also has a big impact on the quality of public transport available to you. For example, public spending on transport infrastructure projects per head of population is £3000 in London, but only £5 in the North-East.[5] This partly explains the government’s talk of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and ‘Midlands Engine Room’ – ideological branding exercises covering some small improvements in infrastructure outside the South-East that will have little impact on such disparities.

The term ‘public transport’ covers different modes of conveyance. One improvement to public transport has been the reintroduction of tram systems in some cities, although there are issues over the cost of fares and private profiteering. The lack of decent walking and cycling facilities has also become deeply politicised in recent times. Although campaigners in London have won improvements to street design to make cycling safer, much more needs to be done to produce the kind of modal shift required to meet environmental and health targets, and in other parts of the country (again, often the poorest) the situation remains dire. Finally, Uber threatens traditional taxi operations, both in terms of the working conditions of taxi drivers and its potential to add to congestion. While all of these issues are important, this article highlights the problems facing the two most common forms of public transport – rail and buses.


The government recently courted controversy by ‘pausing’ the electrification of several rail routes, breaking a key Conservative Party manifesto commitment.[6] Britain is far behind other European countries, where electric trains are ubiquitous. Electrification is essential to realise rail’s carbon reduction potential and crucial to replacing life-expired trains.

The privatisation of state-owned British Railways in 1993 promised private sector investment into a system that had been underfunded by government for decades, leaving ancient trains, poor punctuality and unattractive stations. Yet the electrification debacle is only the latest in an epic sequence of failures since privatisation. Examples include fatal train crashes caused by lack of maintenance, ticket office closures, and ruinous private finance initiatives. Privatisation has also increased fares, on average by 25% in real terms.[7] [8] Crucially, the amount of subsidy that the government pays for the railways has also increased, doubling since 1993.[9]

Why do the railways fail if not for lack of government expenditure? Firstly, in order to attempt to create a market within the industry, there has been a necessary fragmentation of the railway’s institutional infrastructure, shattering a single public body into over 100 separate private entities. This has created duplications in the processes and assets needed to run the railway, which increases costs. Secondly, in order to incentivise the participation of private companies, the government must guarantee them a profit by shouldering all the risks. So money that could be spent on improving services or lowering fares is instead funnelled into the pockets of shareholders.[10] [11]

Much political capital has been made by Osborne over government investment in the ‘HS2’ project to construct a high speed line from London to the North. Indeed, the latest estimate of the cost of construction is £58bn.[12] There are some very good arguments for high speed rail, not least of which its success in other countries. For example, nobody flies between Paris and Brussels, thanks to the popularity of fast trains. The original argument for HS2 was its potential for reducing carbon emissions, yet its business case shows that very few journeys will transfer from plane or car to the new line. They will instead transfer from other rail services, so it will at best have no impact on carbon emissions, and may even increase emissions, since high speed services are more energy-intensive.

The case for HS2 is also predicated on overoptimistic assumptions about increasing demand for long distance travel.[13] HS2 cannot simply be for the rich, because there are not enough rich people in the country to fill the thousands of seats that will leave London every few minutes. Therefore demand must be taken up by lower income passengers. This is likely to mean heavy subsidisation on top the enormous construction costs. These resources would be much better spent on improving the existing network, lowering fares and reopening lines.


While much attention has focussed on the failings of rail, little regard is paid to humble buses, despite the fact that they carry three times as many passengers as rail. For most people busses are the daily reality of public transport, because they serve much broader populations.[14] [15]

Yet bus use has been in long term decline outside of London since bus services were privatised in 1985. Privatisation meant that local authorities lost virtually all control over bus services, replaced by the purest of free markets. The inevitable result has been the loss of ‘unprofitable’ services, while a cartel of multinational transport companies – Stagecoach, First, Arriva, and National Express – protect local monopolies of core routes. Accordingly, outside of London companies can set whatever fares they like, safe in the knowledge that passengers have no alternative but to pay them, which typically results in the highest fares being charged in the most deprived areas.[16]

London took a different track to the rest of Britain. A franchising system was created, so that a public transport authority specifies routes and fares, while private companies bid to run services within these criteria. As a result bus use has increased significantly, particularly after Transport for London cut fares in 2000/01[17]. In contrast, fares in other English cities have doubled in real terms since privatisation.[18]

A further incentive to increase fares is provided by the Concessionary Travel Scheme, introduced in England in 2008 (similar schemes operate in the rest of the UK). This provides free bus travel to elderly and disabled people. It has become a vital lifeline for millions of people, and has so far mercifully been protected from austerity. Local authorities have a statutory obligation to meet the costs of the scheme, but because of privatisation bus operators can charge councils whatever they like. In the context of declining central government support, this means that local authorities have to cut other parts of their transport budgets to meet the obligation.[19] Often this results in cuts to subsidies that support unprofitable services neglected by the bus cartel. Over 2000 bus routes have been reduced or withdrawn in this way since 2010. Swathes of communities have been cut off, and (ironically) the greatest impact has been on those groups that receive concessionary travel.[20]

Bus deregulation also prevents smart ticketing like London’s Oyster card being available in the rest of Britain, since the benefits it brings users are in direct opposition to the interests of bus companies. While ticketing systems like Oyster offer lower fares, the ability to use the most convenient routes, and seamlessness connections between transport modes, this flies in the face of bus companies charging inflated fares and their wish to restrict passengers to using their own services.

The government has announced a ‘Buses Bill’, which may (or may not) give local authorities franchising powers similar to London’s, alongside new forms of political devolution. Even if it does, at best these powers are only likely to offset local authorities’ shortfall as a result of central government budget cuts.[21]

Resistance – where next?

As many have pointed out, the issue of public transport can bring together campaigns against cuts to public services and increasing carbon emissions, so as to strengthen both. Despite this potential, such campaigns have yet to emerge on any significant scale in Britain. This is likely related to the general weakness of resistance to neoliberalism.

Transport campaigners’ greatest advancement so far is identical to that of the anti-austerity movement: electing a Leader of the Opposition that agrees with them. During the leadership campaign Jeremy Corbyn made great play that his plans to create a renationalised ‘people’s railway’ enjoyed majority support, even by Tory voters. It was also his first policy statement after his election victory.[22] He was backed early on by the rail workers’ unions RMT and ASLEF. Rail unions have fought privatisation from the outset. They coordinate community campaigns under the banner Action for Rail, and there have been several strikes. Every public transport workers’ strike should be read as a strike against privatisation and austerity, even if anti-union laws prevent unions from making renationalisation an explicit strike demand.

It is clear that other forms of direct action are needed too. This is exactly what the self-styled Yorkshire Freedom Riders decided early in 2014, when local authorities withdrew free rail travel for older and disabled people. They held ‘freedom rides’, which involved travelling in a group without tickets. Initially they were allowed to do so by Northern Rail, but after a few weeks of riding someone arranged for the police to stop them. One such confrontation led to the violent arrests of two protestors. Yet they continued their actions and lobbies, winning back free travel for disabled people and half fares for the elderly.[23] Direct action has been the staple of pro-cycling campaigners too, and Critical Mass’s anarchic monthly group rides have arguably helped highlight the need for the suitable cycling facilities enjoyed in counties like the Netherlands (which itself was a result of mass campaigning).

As well as creating links with environmental issues, there is also a pressing need to think through how transport is part of what has been described as the ‘right to the city’. One of the effects of gentrification in urban areas is to push the working class to the periphery and away from places of work. This is compounded by the high costs of commuting. That is why calls for better public transport are insufficient on their own. Improvements to public transport are frequently accompanied by statistics showing their positive affect on house prices and sales.[24] Viewed this way, public transport simply propagates gentrification. Resistance to neoliberalism must embrace opposite demands to rip apart this perverse logic. We must insist on high quality public transport free at the point of use, using environmentally sustainable energy, for everyone wherever they live.


Action for rail (http://actionforrail.org/)

Campaign for Better Transport (http://www.bettertransport.org.uk/)

Critical Mass (http://criticalmass.wikia.com/wiki/List_of_rides)


[1] http://www.pteg.net/resources/types/briefings/briefing-outcomes-spending-review

[2] http://www.campaigncc.org/sites/data/files/Docs/one_million_climate_jobs_2014.pdf

[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/35586/nts0205.xls

[4] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/457752/nts2014-01.pdf

[5] http://www.ippr.org/files/images/media/files/publication/2013/06/still-on-the-wrong-track_June2013_10933.pdf?noredirect=1


[7] http://www.cresc.ac.uk/sites/default/files/GTR%20Report%20final%205%20June%202013.pdf

[8] http://touchstoneblog.org.uk/2015/06/new-orr-figures-reveal-stealth-fare-increases-amid-soaring-costs-of-privatisation/#comment-151959

[9] http://www.cresc.ac.uk/sites/default/files/GTR%20Report%20final%205%20June%202013.pdf

[10] http://www.cresc.ac.uk/sites/default/files/GTR%20Report%20final%205%20June%202013.pdf

[11] Wolmar, C. (2012) On the Wrong Line: How Ideology and Incompetence Wrecked Britain’s Railways, Kindle version, accessed 25 June 2014 from Amazon.com.

[12] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/7c2065d0-938f-11e5-bd82-c1fb87bef7af.html#axzz3tNFVcfSS

[13] http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n08/christian-wolmar/whats-the-point-of-hs2

[14] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/342160/nts2013-01.pdf

[15] http://www.pteg.net/system/files/general-docs/pteg%20Case%20for%20bus%20report%20FINAL.pdf

[16] http://www.pteg.net/system/files/Effectofbusfareincreasesonlowincomefamilies.pdf

[17] http://www.ippr.org/files/publications/pdf/greasing-the-wheels_Aug2014.pdf?noredirect=1

[18] http://www.pteg.net/system/files/Effectofbusfareincreasesonlowincomefamilies.pdf

[19] http://www.pteg.net/system/files/general-docs/CT%20briefing%20final.pdf

[20] http://www.bettertransport.org.uk/sites/default/files/research-files/Buses_In_Crisis_Report_2014_Final.pdf

[21] http://www.bettertransport.org.uk/blog/buses/government%E2%80%99s-buses-bill-opportunity-not-threat

[22] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/jeremy-corbyn-reveals-first-official-policy-to-renationalise-the-railways-10509504.html

[23] Read a fascinating, and at times amusing report of the protests here: http://www.unitetheunion.org/uploaded/documents/South%20Yorkshire%20Freedom%20Riders%20-%20The%20Story11-21954.pdf

[24] See this report on house prices and Manchester’s Metrolink, for example: http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/new-metrolink-routes-lead-boom-9097293


  1. Eventually, people will have to bring mass peaceful disobedience to bear on the Tories attack on the poor, marginalised and low paid. Direct peaceful action is where it is at. All that is happening now under this government is that the poor are supporting the rich, no more no less. And these have to be mass movements, not led by trendy left anarchists or affluent liberals playing at being Che Guevara, but ordinary people who are directly affected by austerity, and who will benefit from a government that is for the majority and not the rich minority holed up in the affluent parts of London and SE England.


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