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Essay: The Passenger-Customer: The abandoned subject of the sort-of privatised railway

Essay: The Passenger-Customer: The abandoned subject of the sort-of privatised railway
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I begin this essay by diagnosing the particular formations of ‘Neoliberalism’ that best allow us to understand the logics of rail privatisation, its present impasse and the relationship between operators and their ‘customers’. I then explore this relationship further by contrasting the affect of individual empowerment, as idealised in advertisements from Northern Trains (2016, 2021), with the affect of abandonment, in accounts of disruption on AWC and TransPennine Express (TPE) (Pidd 2023, Topham 2023). I argue this contrast illustrates the disjuncture between the unrealised promise of privatisation, with its empowered ‘customers’, and the real-life ‘anomy’ (Beckert 2020) experienced by passengers, abandoned by an industry in impasse.

This essay was written by David Frankal as part of his Geography (BA) course at Durham University, for the ‘Neoliberal Life’ module. The assignment was to analyse an empirical case study of neoliberalism (with an appropriate definition) by means of analysis of two ‘affects’. The views expressed in the essay should not be taken as an expression of those of the author or Enroute. The essay was awarded a mark of 94%.

In September 2023, comedian James Nokise set off by train from London to Edinburgh, only to find himself and other passengers, including a class of 50 schoolchildren, stranded at Preston, with all trains north cancelled due to a track fault (Pidd 2023). Avanti West Coast (AWC) failed to source replacement buses, and ended up sending passengers onwards by taxi, a 3½ hour journey, ending at 2:30am (ibid). Although Nokise’s ‘odyssey’ may not represent most rail journeys in the UK, it does powerfully illustrate the affects of disorganisation, and ultimately, abandonment of the passenger-customer, that I argue have come to characterise the contemporary ‘sort-of privatised’ passenger railway. Many have traced endemic problems on the network back to the ‘atomisation’ of the industry in the 1990s (Dennis 2022), itself part of a broader programme of neoliberal privatisation by successive UK governments (Gibb et al 1998, Hall 2011). I begin this essay by diagnosing the particular formations of ‘Neoliberalism’ that best allow us to understand the logics of rail privatisation, its present impasse and the relationship between operators and their ‘customers’. I then explore this relationship further by contrasting the affect of individual empowerment, as idealised in advertisements from Northern Trains (2016, 2021), with the affect of abandonment, in accounts of disruption on AWC and TransPennine Express (TPE) (Pidd 2023, Topham 2023). I argue this contrast illustrates the disjuncture between the unrealised promise of privatisation, with its empowered ‘customers’, and the real-life ‘anomy’ (Beckert 2020) experienced by passengers, abandoned by an industry in impasse.

Neoliberalism, impasse & the passenger-customer

Neoliberalism can be characterised in a variety of ways, from an ideology to a programme of government policies (Gilbert 2013), but, drawing from Larner’s (2000) conception of ‘governmentality’, it is most helpfully understood here as a set of logics and practices concerning the construction and governance of the relationship between the state, economy and individual. Ideologically, it idealises a ‘minimalist’ state, leaving the economy to the ‘free market’ and thus empowering private actors to innovate and consumer-citizens (Clarke 2007) – or ‘passenger-customers’ – to make free choices. In practice, however, the state is central in creating and maintaining these very markets (Foucault 2008, Gilbert 2013, Larner 2000). Despite its incoherences and contradictions, Neoliberalism wields the power of a hegemonic ideology, its reason claimed mere ‘common sense’ (ibid). Even as its ideological drive seems to falter in the present ‘impasse’ (Davies & Gane 2021), its logics and practices nevertheless persist, as what Peck (2010) calls ‘zombie Neoliberalism’.

Rather than seeking to understand Neoliberalism as a ‘pure’ doctrine, I focus on ‘actually existing’ Neoliberalism in the UK (Gilbert 2013), in its manifestation through policies and their impacts, starting with the Railways Act of 1993 (Dennis 2022, Gibb et al 1998, Haines-Doran 2022). The ‘sort-of privatised’ railway, as it exists today, is the product of policies of successive post-Thatcher governments, with ‘Neoliberalism’ being the set of logics that have driven those policies (rather than the policies themselves) (ibid). The privatisation of passenger services was underscored by two main logics: that, with the removal of state bureaucracy, agile private players would drive efficiencies and innovations, competing for the rights to deliver services by cutting costs (‘surrogate competition’); and that by breaking up British Rail’s monopoly, the ‘customer’ (replacing the old parlance of ‘passenger’) would be empowered to choose between operators, forcing train companies to compete for customers on quality and price (ibid). Whilst franchising successfully achieved ‘surrogate competition’, the latter has been mostly unrealised, partly due to the regionally-monopolised nature of the franchises, and partly due to strict restrictions that were placed on competing ‘open-access’ operators in order to protect the integrity of those very franchises (ibid).

Thus, the governance of the railway has long been shaped by a contradiction of state-phobia and intense state micromanagement (Dennis 2022) – hence ‘sort-of privatised’. The true ‘liberation’ of the railway and its ‘customers’ remains forever aspirational but never achieved. Since the programme of privatisation has neither achieved ideologically ‘pure’ Neoliberalism (‘input legitimacy’), nor is it widely seen as being materially successful in improving services or lowering prices (Haines-Doran 2022) (‘output legitimacy’), its underlying neoliberal logics have rather been sustained by the ‘promissory legitimacy’ that true ‘liberation’ will be achieved (Beckert 2020). Like ‘Neoliberalism’ itself (Davies & Gane 2021, Hall 2011), the ‘sort-of privatised’ railway has mutated over time, through changing Governments and crises, from the failure of Railtrack to the May 2018 timetable crisis and COVID-19 (Dennis 2022, Haines-Doran 2022). Yet despite the inherent contradictions, flaws, unpopularity and material failures of these neoliberal logics and practices, they continue to persist through these mutations: from the attempt to reconstitute Railtrack into a still-private (but non-profit) Network Rail in 2002 (only for it to later be reclassified as public), to the retention of private operators within the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail in 2021 (ibid). The latter plan came about in response to the recognition by the Government that franchising has failed; the May 2018 disaster and COVID-19 proved too great crises to overcome (ibid). Yet with the implementation of the plan perpetually delayed (Modern Railways 2023), the network now stands at an impasse between the death of franchising and the start of what comes next; a microcosm of the ‘post-neoliberal impasse’ diagnosed by Davies & Gane (2021). The railway continues to operate under a system of management contracts, more closely micromanaged than ever before by a government that wants nothing to do with it – a ‘zombie railway’ (Modern Railways 2023), to echo Peck (2010).

I now analyse the relationship between operators and passenger-customers through two selected affects, the first in the depiction of an ideal version of that relationship through advertisement, the latter in the harsher realities experienced during disruption and poor customer service. ‘Affect’ is used here as collectively-felt ‘feelings of existence’ (Anderson 2016), in this case the feelings depicted to be, or actually, experienced by the passenger-customer towards that relationship. The affects I outline here correspond to both of Anderson’s uses of ‘neoliberal affect’, that surrounding ‘neoliberal reason’, and its manifestation in real-life policies and projects, respectively.

‘Go do your thing’: The empowered customer

“People of the North, go do your thing”, the advert (Northern 2021) opens, clearly addressing its target audience (the customer base), backgrounded by the world’s cheesiest music. Various customers travel to various places, some for work, others for leisure. Each person has a ‘thing’, playfully paired up in opposites and rhymes to highlight individuality and diversity. This elevation of the individual echoes a previous advert (Northern 2016), titled ‘We Are Northern’, likewise featuring a series of characters (“we are trailblazers, roof raisers, proper stargazers…”). Both of these adverts create and utilise an affect of individual empowerment (borrowing from Clarke, 2005) to uphold as ideal the notion of a train company as commercial service provider, with passengers as free and individual customers, empowered to choose to use the train to access life itself, defining who they are by where they travel. Although ‘We Are Northern’ hints to some collective regional identity, this identity is mostly aesthetical in nature; both adverts emphasise individual customers and journeys rather than collective groups. The service provided by Northern – mobility – receives little attention in-and-of-itself; rather it is painted as a means to an end (see Docherty & Shaw 2019). In fact, until the very end, ‘We Are Northern’ (2016) does not feature any trains at all.

The 2021 advert is rounded off with a pivot from the customers to Northern staff operating and cleaning the trains: “Our thing? That’s a train thing. It’s easier than a car thing. So we’ll be doing our thing, so you can go do your thing”. These final lines do three key things. Firstly, they locate Northern’s own ‘thing’ within a diverse tapestry of ‘things’. Northern is positioned as a private actor with its own special talent/interest and free will, just like its customers; it just so happens that Northern’s ‘thing’ is running trains. Secondly, with “it’s easier than a car thing” (illustrated with traffic and parking fines), they position themselves in direct competition with the road network for customers freely able to choose how to travel, based on convenience and comfort. As ‘We are Northern’ (2016) states, “we are savvy buyers”. Thirdly, it sets up a clear relationship between operator and customer, one the ‘producer’ and the other the ‘consumer’ of mobility (Lin 2018). This separation (to paraphrase, ‘this is our thing, not your thing’) occludes the possibility of customers becoming involved in the ‘provision’ of transport through petitioning the company for change (ibid). We thus find the limit of this ‘empowerment’ – customers are empowered, but only within the depoliticised sphere of individual consumption. The irony that Northern has been nationalised since 2020 (Topham & Campbell 2020), yet this ‘neoliberal’ relationship continues to be marketed, is perhaps another marker of the ‘zombie’ nature of neoliberal reason (Peck 2010).

“No one knew anything”: The abandoned passenger

Nokise’s ‘odyssey’ (Pidd 2023) was the result of multiple compounding root causes; a track fault which resulted in part of the line being closed for several hours, poor industrial relations between AWC and its drivers resulting in a lack of operational flexibility (hence no more trains could run that day), and a failure to source replacement buses, meaning hundreds of taxis were ordered instead (ibid). Such taxis proved unsuitable, however, for the class of schoolchildren due to safeguarding rules, with teachers left to order their own coach (ibid). In another high-profile incident, passengers were dropped off from a late-running train at Oxenholme, only to find that the station had been closed, and had to climb a 2m fence to leave (Pidd 2022). Topham (2023) reports accounts of TPE passengers at Huddersfield, the station with the unenviable record of most cancellations in the country in 2023, who have had their lives disrupted by cancellations, overcrowding and poor communication – a mirror image to Northern’s representation of rail enabling access to life. A common affect across these accounts is that of abandonment – not so much in the occurrence of disruption itself (though in TPE’s case this is excessive), but in the compounding of problems by companies failing to communicate, providing the bare minimum (taxis) or failing even that (in the case of the abandoned schoolchildren, or in allowing passengers to leave Oxenholme station).

Clarke (2005), in his deconstruction of the New Labour citizen, argues the conception of the ‘abandoned citizen’ (abandoned by the dismantling of the social safety net) “treats the dynamic [of empowerment] as rhetorical, masking the real dynamic of abandonment” (ibid:453). To translate this to the railway, one might suggest that the marketisation of the railway and the transformation of ‘passengers’ to empowered ‘customers’ (as illustrated in Northern’s adverts) in fact masks the abandonment of the passenger-customer entirely, with the railway viewed solely as a commercial enterprise rather than a public service (ibid, Haines-Doran 2022). I argue, however, that the abandonment and ‘anomy’ that we see in the above accounts is rather the product of the post-franchising impasse – or ‘zombie railway’ (Modern Railways 2023). Whereas under franchising, private companies had at least a commercial incentive to keep ‘customers’ happy, today’s ‘interim’ management contracts see private companies (such as AWC) paid fixed fees to run the service (Dennis 2022). Performance and customer satisfaction thresholds are so lax that they have been described internally by AWC managers as “roll up, roll up, get your free money here!” (Smythe 2024). If passengers were previously promised to be treated as ‘customers’, then in this ‘zombie railway’ era, even that promise has faltered (Beckert 2020), and passengers have ceased to be subjects at all. The bare-minimum effort, failure of industry cooperation and lack of customer care characterising the new (‘interim’) relationship between the state, companies like AWC, and the passenger-customer, becomes visible in these outlying, but ever-more-common incidents (Pidd 2022, 2023, Topham 2023).

Conclusion

The privatisation of passenger rail in the UK was underpinned by a set of ‘neoliberal’ logics and practices (Larner 2000), constructing an ideal relationship between private train operators and individually empowered ‘customers’, the former competing for the latter on quality and price. Though the promise of true ‘liberation’ was never achieved, its ‘promissory legitimacy’ (Beckert 2020) has sustained this neoliberal reason. The system of franchising succeeded in creating ‘surrogate competition’ (Gibbs et al 1998), until its collapse in 2018-2020, leaving behind a ‘zombie railway’ (Dennis 2022, Modern Railways 2023) which echoes the wider ‘post-neoliberal impasse’ in the UK (Davies & Gane 2021). This ‘zombie railway’ is characterised by a contradiction between a state which wanted to remove itself from rail operation, yet has found itself micromanaging it more than ever before (Dennis 2022), and an ‘interim’ relationship between the state, customers and operators contracted to do the bare minimum (or not even that), extracting “free money” as they go (Smythe 2024). I have highlighted this disjuncture through contrasting the affects of individual empowerment present in Northern’s (2016, 2021) advertisement of this ideal relationship, with that of the abandonment of passenger-customers such as Nokise by operators such as AWC (Pidd 2023). If, to translate Clarke (2005), the ‘empowerment’ of the passenger-customer under privatisation merely masked their abandonment, then the zombification of the ‘sort-of privatised’ railway in recent years has only intensified that abandonment.

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