THE bill to privatise the railways in Britain was put on the statute book in Parliament 30 years ago come November 5. For the travelling public, it was definitely a case of “remember, remember the fifth of November” because it has led to decades of untold misery and despair.

Forget the apocryphal stories of British Rail sandwiches inedibly curling up at the edges. Such stories were used as cover to say public ownership does not work and to promote privatisation.

Rather, remember that from 1979 onwards, British Rail was deliberately run down by the Thatcherite Tories in order to reinforce the case that privatisation would make the rail network better.

Admittedly, that task was not too hard as British Rail had already been starved of much necessary investment by previous Labour and Tory governments. Of course, privatisation did not bring about the boon of a new age of rail that was trumpeted.

Customers did not come first as a result of competition for them by capitalist companies. Strikes, delays, cancellations, bus replacement services, rising fares and tired old rolling stock – and more latterly crap Wi-Fi – are just the most obvious signs of this. Underneath this are the capitalist culprits of profiteering companies reliant upon continuing public subsidy.

READ MORE: Angus MacNeil to work with Alba in Westminster

Currently, four franchises south of the Border are effectively nationalised as the government had to step in as the “operator of last resort”. The same is true of ScotRail and the Caledonian Sleeper in Scotland (and in Wales with its franchise). The quality and quantity of service provision became so bad that governments in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff were forced to act.

Should Labour form a majority Westminster government after the forthcoming General Election, they have pledged to return the remaining services to the public sector. But there is a danger that lies ahead in returning rail to public ownership. This is because there are different models of public ownership.

The one we had under British Rail was that of civil servant mandarins and government-appointed chairs from well-heeled backgrounds running the rail network, supposedly on our behalf.

ITS modern version is of the public sector recruiting from the private sector for its top management. Take ScotRail as an example of what is to come because one of the common features of the SNP and Labour is their belief in managerialism.

The National: ScotRail's is still besieged by managerial culture despite public ownershipScotRail's is still besieged by managerial culture despite public ownership

ScotRail is run by a management team of eight executives with salaries ranging from £115,000 to £330,000 a year. ScotRail is in turn managed by Scottish Rail Holdings, and its paid board directors earn between £85,000 to £108,000 per year for less than a five-day working week.

On this board, there are two non-executive directors, one of whom is Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) general secretary Roz Foyer. This is hardly evidence of industrial democracy with a worker director on the board. Foyer is only there to give Scottish Rail Holdings advice and has no power of veto.

What would be evidence of industrial democracy would be at least one representative of the unions representing the workforce on the ScotRail board.

Even better would be one of these representatives being seconded from being a ScotRail employee. And then, of course, there’s no representation for the travelling public at this senior level.

Since returning to the public sector on April 1, 2022, ScotRail has not exactly covered itself in glory. What we need is a participative and democratic form of public ownership north and south of the Border for our railways.

READ MORE: Storm Ciaran named as UK sees weather and flooding warnings issued

Otherwise, we will continue to have a conventional form management administering the network on our behalf, telling us they know what is best for us with their high executive salaries. 

If we had this participative and democratic form of public ownership, we could begin to envisage another kind of railway. This would be one of increased investment in infrastructure and rolling stock, making the quality and quantity of rail travel so much more inviting and pleasurable, while at the same time taking cars and lorries off the roads in the achievable pursuit of net-zero targets.

We could even go as far as envisaging rail as being the mainstay of an environmentally progressive system of free public transport as the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) has argued for since 2007. Such schemes exist in Belgium, Estonia and Luxembourg.

Gregor Gall is a visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds