When the railways were privatised, we were told that they needed to be freed from state control and entrusted to the dynamic private sector.
Virgin Trains took over the InterCity West Coast franchise from British Rail on 9th March 1997. If you turned up at Liverpool Lime Street on that morning for a train to London, you wouldn’t have noticed much difference. Your ticket still had that familiar double arrow logo. The train would have been the same type that had been on that service the previous day. It probably still had “INTERCITY” painted on its side.
Gradually, things began to change. Cheap fares came in with heavy restrictions. The integrated network became fragmented — now there were tickets that restricted you to trains bearing a certain logo. Confused? Not sure which ticket to buy? Sorry, it’s more important that you have CHOICE.
Want to travel to London during the morning peak? The powers-that-be decided that those fares were to be unregulated, dictated only by what the market was prepared to pay. And the prices went up, and up, and up, and continue to rise. Train too busy? We will “yield manage” and price people off.
And if you need help at a station, just pray that there are staff wearing your company’s uniform. “That’s not one of our trains, it’s not our ticket, it’s not on our system. Can’t help, sorry.”
The story was repeated across the rail network. The railway stopped being a public service and became just another corporate entity. And it became less safe. There were accidents – serious, fatal accidents – which can be blamed squarely on corporate greed and penny-pinching.
I can envisage something similar happening with the NHS. It won’t be a sudden change. The first day of NHS plc will probably be no different to what has gone before. The changes will come in gradually – a charge introduced here, some healthy competition there. Pay a little extra for “NHS Plus” benefits. Certain procedures denied because it’s not commercially viable. Our health service will be taken from us piece by piece, and by the time we realise what has happened, it will be too late.
Vote wisely tomorrow.