Privatisation and austerity don’t cut costs: they just pass them on to us.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 12th January 2024

The weather was worse than forecast. By the time I reached Bristol, at 5pm, all trains to the south-west had been cancelled, because of rising flood waters. It was no one’s fault – just one of life’s vicissitudes. What happened next was a different matter. I believe I’m still suffering the effects of it: I think privatisation has made me sick. In various ways, it has sickened the whole country.

Hundreds of people travelling to Somerset, Devon and Cornwall were ejected from my train at Bristol Temple Meads. In the information office, we were sorted into groups of four. Each group was issued with a code written in ballpoint on a slip of paper. This, we were told, could be handed to a taxi driver outside the station, who would take us to a station near home. It seemed an extravagant way for the company, GWR, to discharge its legal duty to provide either alternative transport or accommodation.

Outside, my group of four joined a queue that soon swelled, I reckoned, to more than 1,000. Most of us had no shelter. We stood in the rain, waiting – and waiting. At any one time, there were about 20 taxis on the forecourt, but scarcely any picked up people in the queue. On average, one group of four was finding a ride roughly every 10 minutes. At that rate, it would take two days and two nights to clear the existing queue, let alone deal with the new trainloads arriving. I began to feel pretty rough: I must have been starting a cold.

Few of us wore the kind of clothes required to resist a steady downpour. In the queue were elderly people, young children and babies – I was by no means the most vulnerable. Even so, the longer I stood, the worse I felt. I managed to speak to one of the hard-pressed station attendants trying to negotiate with the taxi drivers. Why were they using taxis, not replacement buses? “We tried the coach companies, but no one’s answering the phone.” Had this happened before? “Oh yes, it happens a lot.” Why weren’t the taxis taking people? “Most of them don’t want to do the distance. They’re getting to the end of their shifts, or they’re working part-time, or because of the conditions on the roads.” So how were we going to get home? “We’re doing our best.”

None of this was the fault of the workers, who were trying to achieve the impossible. But anyone could see that the numbers didn’t add up. Even if every taxi arriving at the rank had been available, there wasn’t enough capacity. Surely GWR wouldn’t just leave us there? After an hour and a half, during which our group moved forward only five metres and no alternatives were offered or announcements made, I realised I was going nowhere. I phoned a friend in Bristol, who kindly agreed to put me up for the night. By the time I reached his house, soaked to the skin, my cold had developed into a rattling fever.

The following morning, the trains were running again. Masked and drugged (though testing negative for Covid), I shivered through the journey. One of the passengers asked the ticket inspector whether she could reclaim the cost of her accommodation from GWR. He said he didn’t know. This triggered a lively discussion: most of those near me turned out to have been stranded the night before.

Some had waited till almost midnight, sometimes for six or seven hours, in one case coming dangerously close to hypothermia, before giving up and trying to find somewhere to sleep. At no point, they told me, did anyone inform them they were unlikely to get a ride, or offer an alternative to waiting for a nonexistent taxi. If someone with a health condition had died as a result of exposure, it wouldn’t have surprised me. Perhaps some people subsequently did.

And then it struck me: by issuing those taxi chits, the train company, GWR, had discharged its duty to provide us, as the rules insist, “with alternative means of travel to your destination”. Both government regulations and GWR’s pledges are clear: either they must get you home or they must provide you with accommodation. The Rail Delivery Group, which represents all the train companies, promises “if the last train of the day is cancelled, we won’t leave you stranded”. Technically, GWR did not leave us stranded: it gave us a scrap of torn notepaper that would have procured a taxi, had taxis been available. What seemed like extravagance when the chits were handed out now looks to me like a highly effective means of reducing liabilities.

When I described my experience on social media, people replied that similar things had happened to them, at the hands of different train companies. When I asked GWR how it justified its response, it told me: “No one was left stranded at Bristol Temple Meads overnight, and we were proactive in trying to help people complete their journeys in difficult circumstances … we are not aware of anyone who required overnight accommodation, or was not able to get a taxi.”

My cold turned into an upper respiratory tract infection, from which I haven’t fully recovered, five weeks later. I’ve had to cancel quite a lot of work. I can’t prove that it was caused by standing in the rain for so long on 4 December. But it can’t have helped. As usual with privatisation and austerity, costs have not been cut, just transferred from one place to another. They are always transferred in the same direction: from corporations or the state to individuals.

Similar things happen throughout our depleted public sector, whether it’s run by private companies or the tattered remains of the state. By letting flood defences crumble, the government’s balance sheet looks better, but much greater costs are passed to households and their insurers. By triggering, through austerity, a crisis in special educational needs provision, the Tories dump untold misery on families, in some cases forcing parents to give up their jobs to care for their children. By allowing the water companies to cut corners, the government ensures that swimmers and surfers are poisoned and tourism and hospitality businesses go under.

There are no savings from austerity and privatisation, just a wholesale shifting of costs. The rich pay less tax and the public service companies in which they own shares make greater profits. The rest of us pick up the bill.