Trains – together with tunnels they’ve been providing a visual metaphor for sex since the invention of the train. Rather less sexy is most people’s experience of train travel which convention suggests is currently high ticket fares, long delays, overcrowding and the thing people hate most in life – RBS. Sorry that’s RBS as in Replacement Bus Services, I’d hate for anyone to think I was sneaking an attack on a bank under the radar.
Renationalisation of the railways was a policy formally adopted by the Labour party this week at their annual conference. If they were to win the next general election, they would bring as many as 5 of the 16 franchises under public ownership by 2025. It’s not a new idea as the re- in renationalisation may suggest, and it comes at a strange point in the life-cycle of the railways. As the recently revamped Birmingham New Street station, the removal of the front apron at King’s Cross and the occasional calls to reinstate the Euston arch all show, it seems that to reinvent itself for the future, rail travel is trying to recapture some of the supposed glory of the past. But how did we get to this point? Why do we have current problems with the system? And is any of this a good idea?
The first nationalisation came under Clement Attlee in 1948 [just like your proverbial mum did]. At the time the Labour government was pursuing a policy of nationalisation of most industries including coal mining, gas, electricity and steel as well as the introduction of the NHS. After nationalisation, the running of the trains changed very little and although the service was making a small profit, it was primarily occupied with rebuilding damage inflicted during the Second World War. The introduction of diesel engines was initially resisted as it would leave the system reliant on foreign oil rather than Britain’s then-thriving coal industry.
By 1962 the rail network was losing money and the Conservative transport minister, Ernest Marples, enlisted Richard Beeching, a businessman from outside British Railways to help stem the loss of money. The subsequent ‘Beeching Report‘ (actually the first of two reports) recommended the closing of large swathes of track and over two thousand stations which were little-used. The report also suggested electrifying some of the lines and changing the way freight was transported. It should be noted that Marples wasn’t a totally dispassionate bystander in these reforms. He owned 80% of a major road-building company (technically in his wife’s name whilst he was a minister) which built, among other things, the M1 and stood to benefit substantially from moving people away from trains and into road transport.
During the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s government pulled a reverse-Attlee and privatised many of the state-owned industries, a policy continued in the early 1990s when John Major privatised British Rail. At the time, British Rail management was keen to keep the railways as one entity and to sell them off as a whole, but the Treasury opted to split the service up in to several different franchises, largely to try and squeeze the most profit possible out of the sale. This created the fragmented and patchwork system that has largely survived to this day. The privatisation project didn’t get off to a particularly auspicious start when the railways lost £2 billion in the first full year of rail franchising. Since then passenger numbers have rocketed and the amount of government subsidy given to these private companies has risen with it. The response from the railways to the overcrowding caused by added passengers was to raise the tickets prices to try and discourage people from travelling at these times. But hey, you know what? Price rises or no price rises people have still got to get to work for 9am and so they cough up anyway. Which brings us neatly to why we hate train travel so much. The railways are still a vital service which people rely on and it’s great for the private companies (they now manage to cover 99% of their operating costs, but still took a £4.8 billion in government subsidies last year) but not such great news for the passengers.
Tantalisingly, one franchise has given us a glimpse through the looking-glass into the world of nationalisation. The East Coast mainline fell out of private ownership in 2009 when National Express, thinking they had stuck gold, were blind-sided by rising fuel prices and the global recession. The franchise had to be taken over by the department for transport between 2009 and 2015, during which time it brought £1 billion into the treasury, which is what is usually cited as the reason for going back to full nationalisation. Although that sort of misses the point. Yes, if the taxpayers are getting money from the railways it’s better than it going to a company, but what a lot of passengers would probably prefer is for some of that money to be spent to invest in infrastructure and to reduce the price of fares. Certainly, having the network under the control of one entity would make ticketing more straightforward, and some funds could be diverted to bringing down ticket prices, especially same-day tickets.
Notwithstanding any of this, perhaps a new transport revolution is on the horizon. Driverless cars are currently being developed by several companies and may be ready for general sale by the 2020s. If they become widespread, it may affect the way in which people use public transport, especially trains. The ability to work, sleep or relax during transit offers many of the benefits of train travel but with the added bonus of privacy and without needing to get to and from a station. In that scenario, perhaps nationalisation would be a boon to those who still relied on the railways. One could see that in private hands a second Beeching-style report could close down less profitable lines and push tickets prices further upwards, turning train travel into the preserve of the super-rich. On the other hands, a public railway may operate with smaller profit margins but maintaining vital links at affordable prices for those that need them, something akin to Royal Mail’s ‘universal service.’
Renationalisation may or may not happen, the government and perhaps ultimately the people will have to choo-choo-choose wisely, but it’s certainly something worth pondering next time you’re squashed like sardines into the aisle of a train carriage and are enjoying an unscheduled stop in the middle of a field somewhere.