Transport System: Failings - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:25 pm ar 25 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Llafur 12:25, 25 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for calling this debate. I shall return to his comments later. My contribution had to be urgently amended late last night, following the more than excellent news that a Labour Government would grasp the nettle and take rail back into public ownership. Whereas I had originally intended to canter around the course on wider issues of public transport, I now intend to confine my remarks to the excesses of private rail and, in particular, its ticket pricing structure under privatised arrangements.

The rising cost of travel following privatisation illustrates perfectly the distinction in priorities between the public and private sectors. Whereas the driver behind public service operations is serving the public interest, the driver behind private sector operations has to be service, but compromised by profit. The water industry provides us with a classic example, particularly in London and the south-east. I am not ideologically opposed to privatisation: I am opposed to privatisation in conditions of monopoly. Monopolies invariably and inevitably abuse their position, whether through restriction of supply or sectoral excess profit taking. This is what has happened under rail privatisation. The idea that you have real competition on the railways, justified on the basis of competing franchises, is for the birds. It is a myth. The reality is that rail franchising under privatisation has saddled us with a string of monopoly providers. That is the case on much of the national network.

For example, if you bring up National Rail Enquiries on 03457 484 950 and ask for a return ticket from Carlisle to London—I see my noble friend there on the Front Bench, who will be regularly buying these tickets—you receive the monopoly price. I was told this morning that there is one contractor, Avanti West Coast, and I give an example. A traveller ringing up to purchase that Carlisle to London standard anytime open return ticket will pay £392. It is grossly overpriced. It is designed in such a way as to catch the traveller going about his or her business and requiring early attendance at their destination. It is excessive, unreasonable and exploitative.

How about this one? A traveller travelling first class on the same train, on a similar Carlisle to London open return, will pay—listen—£538. I ask colleagues to compare that with the return fare from London to Beijing, in the People’s Republic of China, which is available today on the internet from British Airways at £382. Similar ticket prices were available from China Airlines and Lufthansa. So it costs the same to travel standard class—second class in the old days—from London to Carlisle and back as to fly from London to Beijing, in China, and back. What a nonsense.

The response of the wider is public is perfectly understandable: drive by car, add to air pollution, add to and put up with congestion on the motorway system, even risking the potholes that characterise much of our motorway network, and then go on to further increase congestion in London when you arrive. That is the legacy of privatisation: ignore the public interest and put profit before people.

Of course, the rail companies respond with the mantra: “pre-book”, “pre-book”. My main complaint in today’s debate is that it is hugely inconvenient for many in the world of work to pre-book, where travel is essential, often at short notice. Business, wider industry and professionals need to rely on sensible input costs if they are to remain competitive. They do not necessarily need subsidy but equally they need to avoid exploitative costs if the need is to remain competitive. The whole system of same-day ticket pricing is in urgent need of reform, and I am confident that a Labour Government will address that problem.

My case is simple. Public utilities are there to support the wider economy. Their pricing structures should reflect the public interest, not the pursuit of speculative profits. Labour has to sort this out. That is at the heart of yesterday’s announcements, which I hugely welcome.

Before closing, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Snape, an old friend of mine, on bringing this debate. He lives in the real world. Like me, he rejects a world where the “profit at any cost” approach to the provision of public services trumps the wider public interest.