It is not surprising that polls show that most people would like the railways to be renationalised. The privatisation of the railways has not delivered the huge improvements in customer care and service quality that had been expected. Quite the opposite. Delays have got worse and the subsidies to the private companies industry are now running at around £5bn, five times more than British Rail ever received.
Yes, there has been some success, like the increase in the number of people travelling on trains, but passengers are completely bemused by a confusing structure and the bewildering number of companies running the industry. Trains no longer connect with each other and tickets are not necessarily interchangeable between companies.
While companies like Virgin do offer some good bargains off-peak, the price of travelling long distance at peak times has become the prerogative of the wealthy or those whose company pays the bill. I was offered the pleasure of travelling from London to Birmingham for a football match last week for £97 return. Not surprisingly, my mate and I went in his car contributing to global warming and congestion while I slipped him a tenner for the petrol.
Privatisation has resulted in all kinds of waste and the public knows it. For example, perfectly good trains are being scrapped and replaced by less good new ones because there is no one in charge to organise the transfer of rolling stock between different companies. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been wasted by track maintenance companies because Railtrack, and then its replacement, Network Rail, failed to keep a check on what work they were doing. Project costs, such as on the West Coast Main Line, soared and everywhere consultants cashed in. All, ultimately, at the taxpayers’ expense.
But the problem for those demanding renationalisation is what does it mean and what would be its effect? The issue is complicated by the fact that in effect much of the industry has been taken back into state control. Network Rail, the company which owns all the infrastructure, such as the stations, track, and signalling, has no shareholders and is funded by the taxpayer, yet it pretends to be a private firm.
Moreover, if you happen to be a Kent commuter on a South East Trains service, you are already travelling on a state run railway. The government agency responsible for franchising, the Strategic Rail Authority, booted off the operator, Connex, last year and is now in direct control of the operations. And the service is performing well. Last week, the SRA announced that SET had reduced the number of late trains by 2 per cent, while the performance of several other commuter operators had deteriorated. The only difference is that a whole lot of fat cats are not grabbing part of your fare.
Yet, the government is so intent on keeping a quasi-privatised railway that it has already launched a competition to find a private operator to run the Kent commuter services, even though this may well involved extra expense given the performance of other private companies. Virgin, for example, has recently been given an extra £400m to run its services over the past two years over the amount originally agreed, because track improvements had not been delivered.
Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, had the opportunity to sort out this mess when he launched his rail review in January. But he ducked out of it, too concerned about the short term upheaval that might have been caused. Instead the report published in July proposed the abolition of the Strategic Rail Authority whose powers and duties, remarkably, will now be handed by civil servants.
That is the wrong kind of renationalisation. Civil servants cannot run the railway and they certainly never did during the days of British Rail.
What people really want is a coherent organisation and a structure they understand. Every time ministers tinker about with the railways, they emphasise that ‘it is not a renationalisation of the railways’ but they never manage to say why not. British Rail certainly had its faults. It was unwieldy and sometimes remote from its customers, often concentrating too much on the needs of its staff and its engineers.
But BR worked reasonably efficiently and delivered a lot of innovation at a reasonable price. For example, InterCity was a popular brand that stimulated a renaissance of train travel in the late 1980s. New trains and improved track were introduced efficiently because the British Railways Board always knew it risked the wrath of ministers if it overspent. A team of highly experienced managers worked together for the good of the railway.
The key issue is the fact that today the services are run by a series of 25 train operators, sometimes competing on particular routes, and the infrastructure is in the hands of a different organisation. All the best railways in the world such as the Swiss and the Japanese are run by a single company, whether private or public, which is integrated.
People would like to see that sense of responsibility and ownership return among today’s railway managers. In effect, what people are saying is not so much a renationalisation, since that has happened covertly already, but the re-creation of a railway that is one organisation and run by people pulling together. It is remarkable that a Labour government elected on a platform of seeking a ‘publicly accountable publicly owned railway’, to quote Tony Blair, has failed to deliver on that promise which, ironically, would not just be popular in its heartlands but among many Tory voters in the commuter belt, too.