YOU might have noticed that plans are afoot to privatise Finland’s railways. Should a decision be reached to push ahead with such a project, deregulation is likely to start sometime around 2018, with Helsinki’s commuter train traffic followed by the rest of the national train services currently run by state operator VR.
SUCH a move would be fantastic news for two groups of people: firstly, the shareholders in whatever private company or consortium would be chosen to run the project; secondly, municipalities which have rail services in their boroughs might receive a small windfall. For everyone else, the move would be disastrous.
A WORKING group formed by the government reported a few weeks ago that in their opinion prices for passengers would fall and there would be more frequent departures. Other benefits would include...er...actually they’re the only potential benefits they could come up with. Two advantages which even a particularly optimistic optimist wouldn’t consider realistic. On the other side you have everyone else who is currently involved in running the trains in this country vehemently opposing the proposals, including VR CEO Mikael Aro, the Rail Unions, and it would seem a majority of the fare-paying public.
SUPPOSEDLY, the working group looked at figures from other countries that have had their railways decentralised including the UK, Sweden and Germany, and somehow came to the conclusion that because in these countries more people are travelling by train (and some economic theory suggests prices fall when a market enters a state of increased competition), that is exactly what would happen here. The arrival at this conclusion would be hilarious were it not so downright imbecilic. In none of these countries have potential related cost benefits been transferred to passengers. Transport companies instead pocket the savings as a means of enhancing their expensive public subsidies. I wonder if the working group considered the obvious truth that if the business is supposed to be financially appealing to private companies then it must be possible for the state to run the operation while breaking even.
IT MAY well be that privatising the railways might decrease prices, but we could have a quick look at Britain’s disastrous foray into private public partnerships (PPP) to see how it shouldn’t be done. Even bearing in mind the disparities in size between the national networks the message is clear. GB’s network costs the public 16 billion pounds annually. Passenger demand has increased but seat capacity and train numbers have not increased to match it. Fare increases have been way over inflation, decreasing only when strict pricing regulations are implemented.
OF COURSE, the situation in Finland is rather different. At the moment there is only one competitor angling for its share of the market: Veolia Transport Finland. Also known as Connex, this organisation is part of the French-based multinational company Veolia Environnement. This is the same company that in the UK was, at the beginning of the millennium, stripped of its rail franchise twice for poor performance, and paid a nice 20 million pound dividend to its parent company – meaning that British passengers were funding the shareholders of Veolia rather than paying for improvements in their own infrastructure.
NOT only that, Veolia is facing calls for boycott from human rights campaigners working to ease Israel’s grip on the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The company is a leading partner in the CityPass consortium currently tendered to construct a light tramway network linking West Jerusalem with various illegal settlements in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Jordan valley due for completion in 2020. They also run two bus services which operate only for Israelis and run on a road which is forbidden for use by Palestinians (road 443, if you’re interested).
NOW considering that the company’s involvement (which, given that the Veolia Group is one commercial entity, includes by association Veolia Finland) in Israel is contributing to internationally recognised war crimes, human rights abuses and a racist transportation system, isn’t there anyone better suited to running the 07:31 Vantaankoski-Pasila? I’ve got several gripes against VR, but I’d rather be sipping my latte on the way to work knowing my fare isn’t contributing to apartheid. Maybe that’s just me.