Margaret Thatcher once said that “If a man finds himself on a bus having attained the age of 26, he can count himself a failure.” This line encapsulated the Tory view on public transport, and became part of the much wider assault on anything publicly owned during the Thatcher and Major governments. What’s more than that is the part it played in the wider and very successful Tory agenda of forcing a complete social shift, making sure there was “no such thing as society.”
In 1979, when Thatcher took power, public transport in Britain looked radically different. The National Bus Company operated the vast majority of bus services in England and Wales, with the Scottish Transport Group doing the same in Scotland. British Rail ran the railway network, which despite savage cuts under previous Tory governments maintained a vast integrated network with profitable lines and government subsidies used to fund socially necessary but loss-making lines. Several ferry routes, and even a hovercraft were also run by British Rail, with timetables and ticketing integrated with the rail network. In large cities, Passenger Transport Executives (PTEs) existed, accountable to their area’s Metropolitan Councils. The PTEs ran their own bus services, coordinated, invested in, and sometimes ran local railway lines, and undertook other public transport initiatives comparable to those of Transport for London today. The logical question to ask is: where did it all go?
The buses were the first to go. Throughout the early 1980s, the various regional subsidiaries of the National Bus Company were split and split again into 70 separate companies, which were sold off to private operators one by one. By 1988, all subsidiaries of the National Bus Company had been sold to private operators, and the Scottish Transport Group followed in the years that followed. In 1982, bus manufacturing facilities were sold to British Leyland, which itself went on to be privatised (and spectacularly failed). As is always the case, this complete deregulation quickly led to the formation of a number of large operators that we all know today: Stagecoach, Arriva, First Group, and National Express, among others. Savage competition ensued, with price undercutting, frequency changes, buyouts, and more, as the larger operators began to consolidate through the 1990s and early 2000s. These bus wars created havoc in some areas and regularly required the intervention of the Office of Fair Trading. As soon as these groups began to take monopoly positions in their respective areas, however, service frequencies dropped, routes were cut, and prices shot up.
British Rail (BR) was next on the chopping block. In 1982, British Rail was divided into “sectors”, each responsible for a type of traffic rather than a specific region. The important change was that their performance began to be measured in terms of profitability, or at least the reduction of public subsidy. The Intercity sector did begin to turn a profit. This was all the evidence needed for the privateers to move in. In 1993, the Railways Act passed, splitting BR into over 100 different companies and selling them off piece by piece. Passenger services were franchised out, with Stagecoach, Arriva, First Group, and National Express, who’d found their feet in buses, now taking on railways as well. Rolling Stock Operating Companies owned trains and rented them out, like landlords for trains. The company Railtrack was created to run track maintenance and signalling. Railtrack began to outsource, losing expertise, cutting corners, and eventually leading to the Hatfield rail crash in 2004, where four people died when a train travelling at 115mph derailed due to a track failure. This led to the creation of Network Rail, for some considerable time the only not-for-profit publicly owned part of the railway network, as the Railtrack fiasco demonstrated that not everything could be marketised successfully.
So why did the Tories, from Thatcher onwards especially, try so hard to destroy public transport? Thatcher’s main aim in government was to replace society with individuals. This policy managed to successfully push class struggle back decades, and even had a massive impact on the left (the liquidation of the CPGB into “Democratic Left” and the rise of New Labour being some of the most obvious). This individualist aim was reflected everywhere in government policy, the confrontation with trade unions, the right-to-buy schemes, the de-mutualisation of mutual banks and cooperatives, selling off of state industries, outsourcing, and the promotion of the private car. The Tories successfully managed to gain complete and total cultural hegemony for their individualist neoliberal ideology, and their attack on public transport was one of the many smaller parts of this larger whole.
The car is an inherently individualist machine. It puts you on the road alone; it pits you against other drivers in an aggressive battle for limited space; and it pits people against each other competing for limited parking. It has been worked into the capitalist ideal –– everyone must own their home, own a car, have a degree, have a nuclear family, etc. What’s more, a car has many more opportunities for profit than charging you for a train or a bus. Everyone owns a car, which means there are more customers on the market. Each car requires parts, maintenance, and fuel –– There are more extras to sell. A car requires space, driveways, and garages: More home improvements to sell. Roads must be widened; parking lots must be constructed; and profits for contractors must be increased. Car-centric transport policy had been a key part of Tory policy for decades, with Tory Transport Minister Ernst Marples having considerable shares in a road construction firm when he closed two-thirds of the railway network in the late 1960s while simultaneously building the M1 Motorway. However, Thatcher and Major catapulted the private car into the centre of transport policy until the present day through their destruction of public transport.
Public transit, however, remains a solution to a vast number of problems we currently face. The climate crisis demands more than Elon Musk’s electric deathtraps as a solution. Almost 30% of carbon emissions in Britain are produced by transport, and it is the only sector where carbon emissions grew between 2012 and 2017. Electric cars themselves raise a whole series of problems, namely the extraction of lithium for their batteries. Nationalised public transport, on the other hand, provides solutions. A restoration of the railways to public ownership could put an end to the various disjointed firms with unconnected timetables and inconvenient journeys. It could see a freeze or even a reduction in prices, which have risen far in excess of inflation since privatisation took place. This alone would see an increase in ridership. The return of buses to public ownership would put an end to the scandal of necessary bus routes being cut due to declining profits, as profitable lines are used to subsidise non-profitable ones. When public transport is run for the public good and not for private profit, only then will it begin to become more convenient and begin to cause the modal shift we so desperately need.
This modal shift will see a number of changes. Not only will we see lower emissions as private cars begin to disappear from the roads, but we will also see an end to car-centric city planning. As the dominance of the car ends, walkability will return to our neighbourhoods, public squares will be liberated from cars, and children will be able to play in the streets. As new estates cease to be built as detached houses with a driveway, from which people emerge only to get in their cars and leave, our towns and cities will become much closer knit. Homes will be closer to each other; you will see and even walk with your neighbours. Schools, shops, and other facilities will be within walking distance. Notice how these social gains stand in contrast to the benefits of cars to the individual. A modal shift towards public transport as a default will make clear inroads into the neoliberal individualism that has dominated society for some 40 years. The individualism of the car will be replaced with seeing your neighbours as you walk to the shops, passing by others in public squares, striking up a conversation with another passenger on the train, and will foster a more cooperative ethos.
Restoring public transport as the default way of getting around will be, just like its previous fall from grace, a small part of the much wider battle the working class is fighting. But no matter how small a part of the battle it may be, it is not a part to be neglected because public transport policy affects far more than just how you get around.
James McLelland, YCL’s Communications Officer and an RMT member