* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Profit chasing public transport companies are failing. Time to give social enterprises a go.
Train companies and their shareholders have been getting rich from British customers for many years while dissatisfaction with the railways grows.
To add insult to injury, around £5 billion of annual subsidy has been paid to those same companies by taxpayers for the past five years or so. Believe it or not, that’s actually higher than when it was state owned, according to independent fact-checking charity FullFact.
The 2018 UK Rail Passenger Survey 2018 found that only one train company significantly improved from 2017 to 2018 in the number of satisfactory journeys, with seven significantly declining. Perhaps not surprisingly, opinion on value for money regarding the price of tickets was just 45%.
As the failed experiment of rail privatisation in the UK becomes clear, there’s an increasing appetite for change. As a consequence different political parties are looking to gain favour with irate commuters. However, the problem we have among our political classes is a critical lack of imagination.
Back in the real world, there are of course many alternatives for our railways and other public services. It’s time we rejected both the failures of private profiteering and the dead hand of government. What’s needed is to put the people that use the railways in control, so why not run the railways as an independent social enterprise?
A new, independent, social enterprise rail company, owned by the community and combining trains and track could improve efficiency and reliability. Rail passengers would be on the company board, with no private shareholders. If we’re supposed to live in a democracy, our railways should be run with democracy in mind.
Certainly it must be financially sustainable and as profitable as possible, a partnership of public, private and social investment.
It should also have a specific remit to put the natural environment and the interests of local communities at the foundations of the business, working in genuine partnership with other social enterprises.
Social enterprises and co-operatives, plus various kinds of state and private operators, already run transport in many countries.
HCT Group is a social enterprise providing millions of passenger trips on their buses and coaches across the UK. The group reinvests profits from commercial routes to help marginalised people get out and about and provides training for the long term unemployed.
Tourist and heritage railways are often run as social enterprises and community-owned and specialist bus services are common too. Community Rail Partnerships in the UK empower and are led by local communities to improve the network plus organisations like Go-Op are working on developing co-operative trains.
Across the world there are huge co-operatives, mutuals and social enterprises, across all sectors. Take the massive Mondragon co-operative in the Basque country for example, a group of worker cooperatives focused on finance, manufacturing, retail, education and technology, employing over 70,000 people.
But what do we need to take this forward? Firstly we need space for genuine debate in both mainstream and social media. We need to spark the conversation. We need to lobby policy-makers and transport agencies. This means a broad coalition of civic society, transport campaigners, rail unions and members of the public to drive change.
Scotland in particular, as a leader in social enterprise development, is ideally placed to trailblaze a new, innovative transport model for our railways. It could take forward the first full, democratic social enterprise rail service in the world, based on what already works.
The same principles can of course apply across the globe, adapting to local circumstances. Business innovation, new policy ideas and dynamic social enterprises exist everywhere. All it takes is political will and the courage to do things differently.