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Unions should resist rail and fuel price rises with civil disobedience

Millions of people who commute to work are a just a few weeks away from a massive cut in incomes that will intensify the dramatic fall in living standards that the recession and austerity measures have already created.

As people struggle back to work after the Christmas holidays, they will be hit by a double whammy of steep rail fare increases and the bills for electricity and gas that in some cases will show rises of nearly 11%.

This amounts to a huge transfer of wealth to the train operators and energy companies like E.On which yesterday announced increases averaging 8.7%. These will naturally impact harder on poorer households, adding to five million already in fuel poverty.

So too will the rail fare rises. Passengers on many routes face fare increases of up to 10% next month. Season tickets and peak fares are regulated and will rise by an average 4.2%.

Many commuters pay huge amounts already. For example, an annual season ticket from St Albans to London is around £3,000. That will go up by over £120 in January.

Off-peak and anytime tickets in England and Wales are set to soar, according to the watchdog Passenger Focus because they are not regulated. An anytime return from London to Norwich will now be 9.2% dearer at £107.70. A day return from Holyhead-Llandudno will be 6.5% more expensive.

The ConDem coalition is pushing ahead with plans to reduce the £3 billion plus subsidy to the rail industry, a process that began under New Labour. That will result in ticket office closures and other “efficiency” savings.

The rail unions have launched a campaign to bring the railways back into public ownership. Today they were holding protests in Swansea and Cardiff. More actions are planned before Christmas.

They handed out Christmas cards with a "seasonal message" from the train companies, which promised commuters will have a 2013 "packed full of cancelled trains, staff cuts and ticket office closures" while the train companies are "making huge profits".

Rob Jenks, of transport and travel union TSSA, said:

We want to point out the dramatic rise in rail fares, a 30% increase in rail fares, compared to the average increase in people's wages of 11.9%.  So you can see there's a huge gap between what people can afford to pay and what people are having to pay.

It's about fares, it's also about all the cuts the industry is facing as the government tries to allegedly balance the books but without taking the opportunity to actually look at what public ownership would bring and all the savings that would make by cutting out profit and various other things.

The Action for Rail campaign says that since privatisation, more than £11 billion of public funds has been “misspent” on debt write-offs, dividend payments to private investors,  and higher interest payments in order to keep Network Rail’s debts off the government balance sheet.

At the same time, privatisation has failed to deliver on its promises. Genuine private investment makes an insignificant contribution to the railways, representing about one per cent of the total money that goes into the railway each year.  Our fares are among the highest in Europe, many of our services are overcrowded and rely on obsolete rolling stock.

Obviously, there is no way the Coalition is going to contemplate public ownership as an option. And nor is Labour. Shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle has only pledged to make sure that the limit on fare rises is applied more strictly. That’s really worth waiting for!

The savage reduction in living standards that will greet millions on January 1 is unprecedented. Rail unions ought to step up their action. RMT general secretary Bob Crow has in the past talked of a campaign of civil disobedience to fight the government. There couldn’t be a better time to put his words into action than right now.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
11 December 2012

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