Ploughing profits into public services

Plaid Cymru have floated the idea of creating an all-Wales rail service with a not-for-profit company controlling the service when Arriva’s contract comes up in 2018. 

My immediate reaction to this was, brilliant! A policy that puts the people first, and ensures a balance between the needs of the passengers and the needs of the service equally without compromising with the needs of shareholders. 

In fact, I was confident that the idea would be universally welcomed. 

You can imagine my surprise then when I read the Daily Post’s Editorial today! 

This is what the editorial says with my response: 

PLAID Cymru need to be careful not to play politics with public transport, nor to look for all-Wales answers to questions which no-one is asking. 

What does this mean? Transport is a political issue which needs political answers. The Editorial writer might not think that there aren’t any questions regarding the Arriva Train service, but I’m afraid there are numerous questions being asked, and it is only right that someone attempts to improve services.

Its blueprint for depriving Arriva Trains Wales of its franchise in 2018 and giving it to a not-for-profit company is an alarming one.

The days are gone when a benevolent, all-powerful state behemoth could be entrusted with the rail network and expected to do an efficient job at a reasonable price. The suggestion by Plaid that a not-for-profit company would generate an extra £10 million a year to improve services is naive. And anyway, what is wrong with profit? What is wrong with the private sector? 

Naïve? How so? The facts speak for themselves, Arriva generate a £13m annual profit paid out to their shareholders and German owners from the current deal. Instead of this money going to share-holders the money, in a not-for-profit  (geddit?) company would be ploughed back into improving services. Simples. What is wrong with profit? A lot when it means that a large percentage of our wealth in concentrated in the hands of a small percentage of the population. The profits made by Arriva are going to pay their shareholders at the expense of the service paid for by the passengers and by the Welsh Tax payer.  We subsidize this service to the tune of £134m – that’s our money. Arriva uses this money to generate profits for its own shareholders, while providing a sub-standard service. Admittedly there is no guarantee that the service will produce the same levels of profits year on year. But the regular growth in profits seen by Arriva is indicative of the profitability of Rail Travel in Wales. 

Isn’t part of our problem in Wales the fact that the public sector has grown much too large, inefficient and costly? And who says that a “not-for-profit” organisation will generate £10 million of savings? A public sector company put in charge of the railways might on the contrary, make a substantial loss, just like the bad old days of flabby, unreliable, inefficient nationalised industry, including the much-unloved British Rail.

The report says nothing of the Not For Profit organisation being a Public Sector Body. It would more than likely be quasi independent organisation. Glas Cymru is a perfect example of a successful not for profit organisation. Yes part of the problem in the Welsh economy is that we are over reliant on the public sector. What we need to encourage private sector growth is investment. A better, more efficiently run public transport service would assist in this aim, and ultimately help growth. Also if this new set-up was to follow the example of Glas Cymru the likelihood is that general day-to-day work would be outsourced to private sector companies.

The Welsh Assembly Government has an important role in subsidising loss-making rail and bus services which are not commercially viable but nonetheless extremely important to rural communities. It is in this area that the role of government can prove invaluable.

But where profits can be made, let them be – what is the harm in that? 

As mentioned above. The profits are at the expense of service.

As for the concept of an All-Wales transport network, it may come as news to Plaid, but there is actually terra firma to our east, and many of us do travel to places like Liverpool and Chester on regular occasions. 

The tired old argument suggesting that Plaid is about isolationism. I should hope that people know better than this. Plaid Cymru is positive about cross border relationship and developing networks and links. In fact it is the London based parties that have no notion of Wales, threatening to pull the plug on the electrification of the railway west of Bristol; Jeremy Hunt saying that Wales was not being ignored because projects were on-going in Herefordshire (you couldn’t make it up could you!). Stop this nonsense, its petulant and it’s a lie. 

This policy of theirs smacks of the notorious “all-Wales” approach to healthcare of Edwina Hart, which would have seen patients in North Wales trekking down to Cardiff or Swansea instead of round the corner to the north-west of England.

The benefits Plaid envisage from these radical changes seem outweighed by the drawbacks. In short, if it ain’t broke, don’t try and fix it.

Who says it aint broke? Has the author travelled on Arriva Trains Wales recently? I travel regularly, and it’s not nice. It is crowded; the toilets are filthy; the carriages are often old stock; there are regular delays…I could just about put up with some of this if I knew that the company were genuinely hard pushed to achieve anything with limited resources. But their not! They’re one of the largest transport service providers in Europe providing services in Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Hungary, Poland and many other European countries. 

An extra £13m could provide an extra 4 new train services a year on the existing network, an hourly service on the Cambrian line and much more. A much better use of our money than enriching a select few further. 

These are the sorts of policies we need to develop, making the most of our limited resources while not selling out the needs of our people to the money men.