The Art of Renationalisation – My Interview with Ellie Harrison

Artist Ellie Harrison (left) holding Bring Back British Rail sign.

Ticket price increases, cancellations, constant delays and cramped unclean conditions, you can already tell this is going to be about trains. In August 2015 about a third of all trains in Scotland were delayed. However Abellio, the Dutch Operator of ScotRail still made at least £1 million that month, which got reinvested in their home country. These issues aren’t just in Scotland, its almost impossible to have not heard about the constant chaos which swamps Southern Rail – which has the highest amount of delays, and the lowest amount of satisfied passengers of any operator in the UK. You have probably heard of disruption and dissatisfaction surrounding other operators south of the border such as London Midland, CrossCountry or Virgin East Coast.

But It hasn’t always been this way.

Britain’s railways were not always operated by for-profit companies. There wasn’t always so many different companies, most of Britain’s railways were operated by just one, and it was publicly owned. However John Major’s Government put an end to this through the 1993 Railways Act, which came into force on April Fools Day 1994. This act of parliament has since become one of the most heavily amended in British history. Despite the fact that they have all been sold to private companies the railways are now costing the taxpayer over twice as much.

The idea of re-nationalising the railways is one which has been growing in popularity in recent years. Scotland’s Transport Minister Humza Yousaf would like to see a public sector operator biding for the ScotRail service. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn strongly believes in re-nationalisation and would make it his policy. Someone else who is a strong believer in renationalising the Railways is Artist Ellie Harrison. You may know  Ellie Harrison for making headlines last year after it emerged that she had been awarded £15,000 by Creative Scotland for her project – The Glasgow Effect.

Ellie Harrison said: “Bring Back British Rail is a cry for a return to sanity on the railways, it is also about trying to keep the dream alive for younger people. To keep passing that history on to people who were born after privatisation, to let them know it wasn’t always this way”

In the beginning Bring Back British Rail was just a Facebook page but it has since grown into a pressure group with over 150,000 supporters. The growing support this campaign has received reflects how much people are dissatisfied by the array of different companies attempting to manage Britain’s segmented railway network. Ellie Harrison founded the Campaign back in 2009, she said: “It was the year after I just moved to Glasgow, moving up here and traveling back down to England a lot, exposed me to the worst aspects of the national rail network, especially the journey between Glasgow and Nottingham, which is like going on three different train companies. I just remember the worst thing would be like a little station somewhere in the Midlands and you would miss your connection and nobody would care. You would be trying to get onto one of the mainline trains, miss that and be 2 hours late – I had loads of frustrating experiences like that”

The maintenance and management of infrastructure of the Britain’s railway network has already had to be re-nationalised. However over 40 people had already been killed in train crashes due to Railtrack’s lack of knowledge and failure to maintain the tracks. Railtrack was replaced by the arms-length public body Network Rail in 2002. Harrison explains “If you look at what happened with Railtrack, it’s actually a tragedy, it makes no sense to have a profit making company in charge of maintenance, because they are going to be trying to cut costs, it is a tragedy if you count up the number of people who were killed. The thought that the Conservatives have forgotten that history and are proposing it again is just total madness.”

TSSA working along side RMT started 2017 with a Public Meeting about Re-nationalising the Railways. TSSA  also released a video on Social Media featuring people from other European countries thanking the UK for improving their national railways through the subsidies the rail operators are receiving from the British taxpayer. As part of TSSA’s public meeting they had a panel of speakers which included Convenor of the Scottish Green Party Patrick Harvie MSP and Labour’s Transport Spokesperson Neil Bibby MSP. Ellie Harrison was also on this panel, she said: “The Unions have always opposed privatisation, but they’re not very good at reaching out of the union bubble and engaging with the passengers. This is often because the Department of Transport will pit the employees on the railways against passengers, like a divide and rule strategy and they are doing that with Southern Rail”

TSSA, RMT and Disabled People Against Cuts protesting outside Central Station, 4th January 2017

In October 2016 Bring Back British Rail published their report – A Better Railway for Britain. They printed one thousand copies of the report and sent one to every MP in Britain. They used the proceeds of a benefit gig which was held in Brighton in December 2015, to fund the printing of this report. Ellie Harrison used the skills she has from her artistic background for the design and layout of the report, but this isn’t the first time she has used her creativity to fight privatisation. In late 2011 Ellie Harrison’s project Market Forces was on exhibition at Vain in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Market Forces included the installation – A Brief History of Privatisation (2011) which involved six electric massage chairs representing Post, Telecoms, Health, Gas, Electricity and of course Railways. Over a 15 minute period the years 1900 to 2011 would be displayed and each chair would switch off when their respective industry was privatised.

The will of the people is definitely shifting towards re-nationalisation, whether it’s franchise by franchise or all at once. The railway operators aren’t even making a profit from the services they are supposed to providing, and are instead profiting from the subsidies they receive from the taxpayers, and it costs the taxpayer another £50 million to run the franchising competitions, Ellie Harrison said: “I have heard even very right wing people say the railways will never make any money – and it’s true – the railways are there to enable the functioning of the wider economy, to enable people to get to work, they’re not there to make a profit. We need to subsidise them with public money in order to let our economy function.”

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