Renationalise the Railways 115

Railways are a natural monopoly. There is no genuine competition between providers. For many people, the privately owned railway service is the only practical way to get to work. We have the most expensive passenger fares in the world, and a negligible amount of freight sent by rail, despite absolutely astonishing subsides pair to the private railway companies – and mostly ejected straight out again as shareholders’ profits. I was hoping to give you a figure for the total subsidies private rail companies have received since the crazed system was set up, but I can’t find a reliable series of figures anywhere – can anyone help?

We also still have a rubbish service. Some nominal punctuality improvement has been made, largely by the ruse of making timetables themselves unambitious. A member of staff at Ramsgate station told me recently of an HS1 service which left Ramsgate 18 minutes late, but reached St Pancras on time. On 27 December I left Brussels 11 minutes late on a Eurostar and made Ashford one minute late. Giving a talk in Cardiff recently, the train from Paddington spent in total almost 20 minutes standing in stations to await shceduled departure. Many timetables, particularly around London, have in fact been worsened – the ordinary commuter service from Gravesend to Charing Cross for example is now scheduled to be eight minutes longer than it was when I used to get it every day in 1986. In other cases track, rolling stock and signalling improvements that make quicker journeys possible are ignored in the timetable, all to give that margin of leeway and avoid punctuality fines and refunds.

The last five railway journeys I have been on (excluding Eurostar) all had people standing or squatting in corridors.

We have a train service which is the most expensive in the world but is still arguably the least pleasant to use among developed nations, and is very slow when you compare similar journeys with our European counterparts. It is impossible credibly to argue that the crazed multiple contact privatisation model has worked.

Rail needs to be renationalised immediately.

115 thoughts on “Renationalise the Railways

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  • woodsy

    “Some nominal punctuality improvement has been made, largely by the ruse of making timetables themselves unambitious.

    It will come as no surprise that the privately-run services from Bristol Temple Meads to Paddington now take an hour and three quarters; in the bad old days of British Rail (using the same InterCity 125 rolling stock) the journey time was one and a half hours.

    Progress indeed.

  • Tom Welsh

    I agree that the railways are one of the most obvious examples of a public utility that should probably be run by government. But I am old enough to remember the bad old days when British Railways was associated with uncaring, “I’m all right Jack” attitudes. The Thatcherites seem to have been dead wrong in thinking that the profit motive could be used to pep up the railways service and make it keen to please its passengers. True, profit does make people try harder; but their efforts are directed to lining their own pockets.

  • larry Levin

    When they sold of the railways anyone remember the company called railtrack? the investors got slaughtered but the insiders made fortunes

  • Neil

    A few choice anecdotes don’t make your case at all compelling. Britain’s railways not run efficiently. That was made clear in the McNulty report. Yes, some journey times on the southern region are slower than they were in the 20s.

    Contrast that with the huge surge in passenger numbers and the re-opening of new lines and stations particularly in Scotland. On that measure alone privatisation has been a great success. The system has its flaws and needs to be tuned. The railways cost too much to run and costs need to be dealt with.

    But as a nation we need to figure out whether we want to subsidise railways to the tune of abother 5 billion to bring down prices, or do we expect commuters and travellers to pay for the railways directly out of their own pockets?

  • John Goss

    I only use my local rail service, which is excellent; punctual, modern, clean, and because of my age – free. Like Tom Welsh I can remember the bad old days, but over Christmas I watched “The Railway Children” and felt nostalgic for the dirty old age of steam, and recalled when as boys we used to go to Scrooby crossing to watch the “streaks” (A4s) come thundering past. Making longer journeys seems uneconomical. If you try to make a late booking the cost is astronomical. Then there are about twenty-five First Class carriages (virtually empty) that you have to walk past before you can get on one of the cramped six or seven carriages at the end of the platform. I use National Express, which is not as comfortable, but better than it used to be, for longer journeys.
    Nationalisation is something I believe in (despite its drawbacks, despite the fact that it gets abused by those who work within the industry) because it provides more jobs, and I believe in Keynesian economics. Not using the railways these days I should not comment, but I can remember when everybody had the advantage of a free national health service (including free prescriptions and free dentistry) which while it is still good is top-heavy with management and light on those needed at the coalface, if the mixed metaphor is understandable.

  • Passerby

    Does anyone think that the proceeds of a wonderful racket such as the railways will ever come back into the coffers of the nations? Short of a revolution and a few heads lopped off, not in a months of Sundays.
    The whole notion of privatisation was to live off the fat of the land, and not about a better service, the monopolies are doing just fine, and you don’t like it, go back and untick the box for the heroine; Maggie the movie Thatcher.

  • Jack

    I’m fortunate that – in my retirement – I’m not obliged to use our railways any longer. And I feel heartily sorry for the millions who are.
    I’ve travelled by rail in the UK only 7 times in the last 5 years. Every single trip was hugely problematic, unsatisfactory and shockingly late. Seat booking proved a waste of time, as was expecting the slightest help from staff. Two of the trips were total nightmares that left me ill – but corporate shrugs all that were available in explanation. Complaining was a waste of time – excuses, excuses, excuses wrapped in machine-generated corporate platitudes. Just unlucky? I have a hard time believing so. It will take a hell of a lot ever to entice me onto a train again.
    Frankly I don’t think it’s privatisation or nationalisation to blame one way or the other – my remembrance of British Rail is in fact worse than recent experience. I think there’s just something in the British character that both expects and accepts second-class public services – and in a nation of jobsworths we’re rarely disappointed. And of course it’s easy to be a ‘troublemaker’ when everyone else is shuffling their feet and downcasting their eyes. That there can be an answer to these problems can be demonstrated by a trip across Europe.
    Totally OT – but the real answer to our transport problems was promised but never delivered. Can anyone here remember the ‘Eagle’ comic? According to which I should by now be winging my way to the shops in my atomic backpack personal helicopter. Mine hasn’t arrived. Do you think I should ask for my postal order back?

  • Richard

    Nationalisation of the railways would have been applauded during the first Blair government, but sadly, the astonishingly incompetent Prescott was minister in charge of transport at the time. If anyone deserves a good kicking for the state of the rail system today, it is that sex pest.

  • Tristan

    I disagree that railways are a ‘natural monopoly’. They are a means of transport which should be free to compete with other means.

    The problem with that is the competition is not free – both rail, roads and busses are all subsidised and regulated to different degrees in different manners.

    The railways today aren’t even fully private – they are fully dependent upon the state for their function (the ‘privatisation’ was just a way to transfer wealth to the ruling classes from taxes).

    I also doubt that swapping out one centralised bureaucracy for another will improve matters much.

    How about ownership by those who work on the railways and those who use them (say season ticket holders?). That’s far more radical and a true socialist and freed market solution.

  • glenn

    Was there even one nationalisation that benefited the country as a whole?
    Anyone who reads the ‘Signal Failures’ column in Private Eye would have to conclude the entire system is a shambles, having been mismanaged for decades. What’s done about it? Absolutely nothing, and nobody in government considers it much of an issue. The Tories originally privitised it with the purported aim of improving the service and saving the taxpayer money. As it is, the taxpayer pumps vast sums into a lousy service, just to guarantee the profits of stakeholders.
    Pricing is unbelievable – every year we get double-digit rises. There’s the usual howls of anguish which are waved away (on account of how this money is needed for Big Improvements), then we get another significant rise on top of that the next time around.
    As usual, we’ve got a service with the primary aim of making a profit and – contrary to the world of the True Believer – that aim does not magically coincide with the requirements of the end user. In fact it usually achieves the opposite result.

  • Julian

    What evidence is there that a nationalised railway would be any better? The reason people were so glad to see privatisation is that the nationalised railway was such a disaster. Train fares to commute to big cities get factored into the salaries that are paid, free season ticket loans etc. Why should those who work locally or at home subsidise those who commute?

  • Mary

    Enough said. Well embedded.
    Sir Roy McNulty
    Author, Rail Value for Money Study
    Sir Roy was appointed by the former Secretary of State in February 2010 as Chairman to lead a special Rail Value for Money Study. Sir Roy was previously Chairman of the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the specialist aviation regulator, a post he held for eight years. Prior to this he was Chairman of National Air Traffic Services Limited (NATS) from May 1999 to July 2001.

    He is a former Chief Executive and latterly Chairman of Short Brothers plc, the Belfast-based aerospace company now part of Bombardier Inc. Previous posts include being President of the Society of British Aerospace Companies and Chairman of the former Department of Trade and Industry Aviation Committee.

    Sir Roy was appointed as Chairman of Advantage West Midlands in May 2009 and is also Deputy Chairman of the Board of the Olympic Delivery Authority, Chairman of the Ilex Urban Regeneration Company in Northern Ireland, and a non-executive Director of Norbrook Laboratories Limited.

  • ingo

    Rail needs to be renationalised immediately.

    Well spoken, it is Green party policy, all the opther lefties just dare to talk about it. They have also said that they would only reimburse private companies for what they have acually invested not what market value or such like some consultants seem to think of value.

    @tristan All forms of transport are subsidised, new planes are no eligible for VAt, and BAA has an assortment of tax perks with regards to their airport trading.

    Large national projects should only be done by a nationalised railservice, for routing and planning purposes, private operators cannot force these projects through.
    An exploded railservice was always going to limp behind, too many shareholders are feeding of the travelling community and the taxpayer, some a national operators who’s competition arrangements, (First) also involve competing against buses, are a double clawed approach to taxpayers money.

    Now foreign operators are getting franchises, because they will give the treasury more money, in return they will cut services to the bone and make do, not a single operator will invest billions on a 2year franchise (Abellio’s franchise of East Anglian railways)it is an insufficient period for real change, just a different sort of rip off to that of our own operators. The privatisation of brituish railways is an opportunists haven, for them to do as they like with very little pressure to perform. They say prices will not rise, but they do.

    And it is on the back of those who make a decision not to drive, who are in principle green, the more rail services get popular the more they charge, its a honeypot and pooh will be round in a minute.
    A nationalised railway could invest the money, once paid to shareholders, for investment in infrastructure, they would have to spent some 10 billions/annum over and above to modernise and extend the services.

  • Sandman

    There are tons of statistics that can be quoted on the privatisation vs nationalisation debate and both sides can cherry-pick the ones that support their case.

    People cite overcrowding as a problem but it is really a case of the train companies being a victim of their own success that so many people want to use those services. A half empty train is lovely, but also much more expensive to run (and less green as well of course). In many areas, the only way to go back to half empty trains is to increase fares substantially, or build new lines. Nationalisation won’t do the trick (unless it brings back sufficient inefficiencies to push people into other modes of transport).

    Also I’m pretty sure that re-nationalisation would result in massive disruption to services, as the structures and incentives of every department of every train operating company will be re-structured / merged / abolished / etc. You would then have another decade or so for things to settle down under nationalisation, with the same arguments continuing about whether it is better than a privatised system. The bottom line is that a very convincing case is required to justify that level of disruption and re-organisation. That case simply does not exist at present.

    I say that the rail system works pretty well in the UK to cope with the sheer volume of passengers. I am most familiar with the Transpennine, Yorkshire and East Coast Mainline services. I have had very little to complain about. I have had a handful of “nightmare” journeys – the bulk of these were generally out of the control of the rail companies (severe weather, vandalism, theft of cable, suicides, etc.).

    Most anecdotal tales of “nightmare journeys” seem to come from people who are unfamiliar with the rail infrastructure and end up buying the wrong ticket / boarding the wrong train / picking the wrong route etc. Even the simple matter of getting a seat is much less of a headache if you are a regular user and know which carriage is your best bet. Regular users also know the tricks to get the best fares.

    As for slowness – you’re talking about shifting incentives for punctual services and slack in the timetabling. This could be tackled without re-nationalising – just reduce the compensation levels / penalties for late running services.

  • Chris2

    “The problem with that is the competition is not free – both rail, roads and busses are all subsidised and regulated to different degrees in different manners.”

    Of course they are regulated they have to be in order to afford protection against spivs and idiots who would ruin the planet in twenty minutes if given the opportunity to ‘compete.’ The idea that an unregulated economy could exist let alone work is nonsense of the sort that ought to disqualify those uttering it from conversation.

    As to the “bad old days” I remember that despite years of neglect, under investment, ‘rationalisation’ according to market theories (Beeching) and constant attacks by private businesses committed to making money by road building, land speculation. long distance road haulage etc, the railways, working under terrible handicaps, actually did a good job, were safe, affordable and offered a service with which the modern parodies cannot be compared. (None of which should be allowed to interrupt the regurgitation of memories culled from old copies of the Daily Express and speeches made by neo-liberals from every political party.)

    The truth is that you renationalising is the only sensible option. Denationalisation in the UK was a crime committed under Britain’s Yelstin regime. The notion that denationalisation was welcomed by anyone with any sense of responsibility is false: the saloon bars, where hatred of immigrants is only exceeded by hatred of the working class, rejoiced out of spite; they would (and have) burn the house down to drive out the unions.

    “Why should those who work locally or at home subsidise those who commute?”
    And why should people who know how to read subsidise the education of illiterate children? Why should people who can look after themselves have to subsidise the protection of the property owners? Why should people who understand their rights have to pay for law courts? Why should people who have the sense to live in the country have to pay for anti-pollution measures in the cities?

    No need to worry really: give the capitalists another few months and there will be no jobs, outside the security sector, left.

  • Tom Welsh

    Tristan, you make some good points. But the trouble is that a railway is too big and inflexible a thing to allow true competition. In the 19th Century we had something like it: rival companies actually built parallel tracks and alternative stations for getting between the same two places. Of course, that is hugely wasteful – although it does allow proper competition.

    When the civil servants were asked to draw up a plan for privatising the railways, the writing was on the wall. Very few civil servants have ever run a successful business, or even worked for one, and the farrago they dreamed up was straight out of an opium-fuelled dream of Rabelais. One company to run the tracks and stations, with a bunch of other companies competing to run trains, with the franchises redistributed very few years – utter insanity!

    Mind you, the railways are just one of many, many public services that simply do not lend themselves to any meaningful kind of competition. Take gas, electricity, water, telephone land lines, cable and satellite TV… the list goes on and on. I buy the same electricity, but I can choose from dozens of companies to pay for it??? It’s like shopping at a supermarket, coming to the checkout with my loaded trolley, and finding dozens of different sets of checkouts all run by different companies and offering different prices for all the goods in my trolley!

  • Press Johncott

    Othre countries have cheaper, smoother, cleaner, faster, more reliable trains, but their trains don’t give talks.

    Giving a talk in Cardiff recently, the train from Paddington…

  • Richard

    Thatcher did not privatise the trains. Enoch Powell, who prefigured much of Thatcherism, did not attempt to advocate it. They knew it wouldn’t work. Only poor old Major, realising he didn’t know how to rule but she did, thought even more Privatisation was the answer. But Craig, you don’t mention one of the other rip-offs. When the companies get things wrong, they lie (e.g. pretend the train got in earlier than it did) or write the rules to excuse themselves. If a passenger gets things wrong or tries to make up for the company messing up, they get stung for huge “penalty fares,” which exploit the victim a second time round. This practice could easily be regulated away, even within the present system, and it should be.

  • Parky

    By definition, privitisation was only ever going to make the wealthy even more so at the expense of those mugs who use the services and as been recently reported on for the railways, it is the working commuters who are paying through the nose for this redistribution. The UK has never been run for the benefit of the general populace, only for the wealthy and with the escalation seen over the past three decades, this has become more obvious. Only some kind of revolution is going to change this sad state of affairs, not a change of government or ownership from private to state.

  • Chris

    The simple truth that rail subsidies are now five times larger (in real terms) than they were at the time of privatisation is all anyone needs to know about what a disgusting shambles privatisation is.

    Nationalise now and while we’re at it let’s take the rest back as well.

  • mrjohn

    It does look like the aim of privatisation was to hand tax payers’ money to a select cartel of “business” people who couldn’t really cut it on the open market

  • Mary

    O/T I was pleased but surprised to see this. Justice at last for Stephen’s parents.
    Gary Dobson and David Norris have been found guilty of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, killed in a racially-motivated attack in Eltham, London in 1993.
    The trial, which began on 14 November, saw a unaminous guilty verdict. Dobson and Norris killed Lawrence by “participating in a group attack” it was found.
    A-Levels student Stephen Lawrence was killed on Well Hall Road, Eltham, London on 22 April 1993 in what has been revealed as a racial attack.
    Gary Dobson and David Norris are set to be sentenced at 11:30am on Wednesday.

  • hip

    I imagine a modern railway system should include little run-ahead carts checking and recording track quality and safety, allowing the following train to choose optimum speed and avoid accidents.

  • Peter Bryce

    The railways are always an emotive subject (at least they are with me!) and I find myself holding two contrary opinions at the same time. I am old enough to remember the nationalised railways in the 70’s, which were cheap and more or less practical (as a student I travelled from London to various locations in Scotland regularly, and I dont recall any particular “student discount”)but the staff were simply appalling: I remember more than one obviously drunk. That was always the problem with any nationalised industry, another example would be the old Gas Board: customer service was an unheard of fantasy.The downside these days is that, although retired on a reasonable pension, I cant afford to use the railways as a regular means of transport, they have become so expensive.The last time I used a train was in 2010, I got an “off peak” return from Darlington to London: on the return trip I boarded a 3.30pm train only to be told that 3.30pm was “peak” and was charged an additional £75 for the priveledge.Now I always travel by coach at around thirty quid return, bugger the environment.Many of my generation have a romantic attachment to the notion of the nationalised rail service, and politically I think that all national resources should be nationally owned,but if you actually think and remember what it was like you wouldnt want to go back to such appaling service levels.Unfortunately the modern alternative is beyond the reach of a large proportion of the people. Maybe we should put you in charge Craig!

  • wall of controversy

    It’s great to hear so many voices in favour of renationalising the railways along with the other natural monopolies. I’m also in favour of renationalising the lot. Although I think the place to start might be with the water companies, since how can any nonsense about consumer choice be applied in the case of water? And if we don’t even have public ownership of our water supply then what comes next… privatisation of the air? I’ll bet that someone somewhere is already working on a scheme for that one.

  • CanSpeccy

    Passenger trains are fun but apparently uneconomic. Abolish the subsidies and most services would be terminated, which proves that passenger rail is not a monopoly — there are alternatives.

    The vast majority of short-distance commutes are by road, and a cheaper long distance alternative to rail(much cheaper without rail subsidies) is air.

    In N. America there are a few seemingly pointless subsidized rail services (AmTrac) that must be horse-drawn judging by their incredibly long journey times. Otherwise the rails are devoted to freight, which turns a profit.

    Nationalized rail service was crap and could, no doubt, be crap again, but it would be a huge waste of public money. For those who cannot drive, the best bet is a taxi. Even with a subsidy, taxis would be a better public policy option for those who for some reason cannot travel by road or air, than nationalized and subsidized passenger rail.

    Anyhow, why do people have to keep moving around so much? Because most travel modes are subsidized and there are no taxes on the externalites (CO2, noise, and the general ugliness of travel infra-structure, which has destroyed much of peace and beauty of the English countryside).

    Instead of wasting money on 1950’s Labour Party nonsense, investment should be directed into the construction of high-tech, low-energy-use human habitats.

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