It’s been over two decades since the Cold War ended, but it seems like we are still equally obsessed with avoiding anything that even looks remotely like Communism. In the case of some countries, that means a full refusal to give benefits to anyone who cannot work, but in most of Europe, it just means that we try to privatise everything. The problem? Sometimes privatisation is NOT the answer, but we are so obsessed with it that we no longer care whether it’s the right decision or not.
The European Union recently passed another “package” to promote railway privatisation, and just this week, privately-owned transport company Arriva was given the green light to start exploiting a route from The Hague (The Netherlands) to Brussels (Belgium). This was, by certain newspapers, called a “victory for the traveller”, but in reality, it’s a disaster. The Dutch railway company (NS) that used to have a monopoly had already tried to exploit this route, but it turned out to be impossible. So how exactly is Arriva going to accomplish the same thing considering the fact that they cannot communicate with the NS as effectively as… well… the NS can?
But that’s not the only problem. Ever since the Netherlands gained its first few competing railway companies, it has been a mess. Prices have gone up, joint ticket systems are full of problems and companies are redirecting travellers to each other for compensations. And it’s not just the Netherlands. Think of the British railway system. Whereas the London Underground is a piece of brilliance that works wonderfully well (I wonder why…), the overground services are nothing more than pathetic. Train prices are confusing and differ enormously from one time to another, getting from London to Cardiff and back during rush hour might cost you as much as a flight to the other side of the world and all those different providers just make it incredibly difficult to get a coherent view of how you should plan your trip.
If you search the internet, you will soon find that there are three railway systems in Europe that are judged to be particularly effective: Switzerland spans the crown, with services to many cities and towns and extremely good punctuality, and two others that are often mentioned are the Netherlands and Germany. All of these have one major railway company that holds almost all of the network, and that is not a coincidence. It is the only way to make a railway system work, because it leads to proper communication and lower overhead costs for the dominant company. And there’s plenty of academic evidence proving that.
Of course, it would be great if we could get rid of monopolies in railway networks and could create a situation of fair competition, but the truth is that we can’t. Not ever. Unless you would actually let multiple providers exploit the exact same route, people will never truly be able to choose between companies. We all want to go from one specific place to another, and whatever provider is able to get us there is the one we’ll take. We won’t adjust our destination just because a different provider is better, which is why the railway system will always remain a monopoly and why privatisation doesn’t achieve anything except create a whole lot more small-scale monopolies.
Ultimately, it is about time we get over our fear of “Communism” and start thinking rationally. Privatising railway systems just for the sake of privatising them is not the way to go, because it ruins the services, and that isn’t worth it. Just because we in the West have this capitalist ideal doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think of alternatives. An ideal should never damage the reality.
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