Is our rail industry on the right track?
Evan Thomas debates the veracity of state-run train operators
THE essential role transport plays in our day-to-day lives cannot be overstated. How well-run a rail service is can make the difference between the hellishly exhausting trek to Mordor and the pleasantly sleepy return by eagle. As these journeys add up, they can have a huge impact on an individual commuter’s quality of life. It’s abundantly clear why the private sector that manages Britain’s railway operations would be under a high degree of scrutiny to deliver at least adequate service. And when they don’t, the voices calling for renationalisation get louder.
However, this is not the full post-war renationalisation many have called for
Recently these calls have been bolstered by the revelation that Southeastern retained £25 million in taxpayer funding. As a result, the train company has been stripped of its franchise and will be taken over by SE Trains, owned by the Department for Transport. Criticisms of the franchise model, whereby companies bid for multi-year contracts to run specific routes, have been heard by number ten, with the announcement of a simplified hybrid system in May 2020. The newly created public body, Great British Railways, will integrate Britain’s fragmented railways, outsourcing operations using tightly specified Passenger Service Contracts. A report from Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, has promised this will “drive significant efficiencies in the railways’ inflated costs”.
However, this is not the full post-war renationalisation many have called for. As part of the Transport Act 1947, the British government made its temporary takeover of the railways during WWII more permanent by acquiring the, effectively bankrupt, big four railway companies. The war had devastated railways with portions destroyed by Luftwaffe bombing. The prioritisation of the war effort had also led to the accruement of a maintenance backlog. Almost all travel by rail being nationalised would allow the fast-tracking of urgent repairs to infrastructure necessary to run Britain’s transport system.
This nationalisation, while experiencing substantial alterations in the proceeding decades, lasted until 1994, when John Major sold the operations to private corporations. Touted as a reinvigorating transformation, allowing consumers more choice and decreased fares due to free market competition, the move was nevertheless highly controversial.
As demonstrated by the public reaction to the loss of franchise status from several railway companies, the controversy never died. It might be a bit of a stretch to suggest that Britain’s railways are in as poor of a state as post-WWII, but campaigners have pointed out inefficiencies in the largely private current system, arguing that renationalisation would put Britain’s railway service back on track. A common complaint is that as a result of private companies’ need to guarantee a profit, few resources are put into improving (or even maintaining) service, despite fares having risen 20 per cent in real terms between January 1995 and January 2018. The severity of these issues is clearly rubbing commuters the wrong way as 64 per cent of the public supported railway nationalisation, according to a YouGov poll during the election period in 2017.
Yet, it is clear to many who lived through the various iterations of nationalisation, that the implementation was far from ideal. In the proceeding decades, following the initial emergency takeover, modernisation and cuts lead to under-investment in the railways. Claims are refuted that profit would automatically be fed back to improving service as any new investment would need to compete against other sectors. The failures of the privatised system, according to Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins, are actually down to the restraint placed on train companies in controlling their own assets. A proposed solution suggests that if individual routes were under complete, separate and financial control, this would breed the efficiency and innovation our transport system desperately needs.
The failures of the new privatised system are down to the restraints placed on train companies in controlling their own assets
What remains to be seen is whether this semi-nationalised model will yield improvements to such a degree it will satisfy the majority wanting full public control. Or whether the minority, who favour expanding the role of the private sector, will see this as a necessary compromise, as opposed to dredging up the corpse of British Railways, now cynically prefixed with “Great”. It’s widely recognised that franchising was not fit for purpose, but this debate has railed on for generations, and all indications point to it continuing to chug along.