The privatisation that never was

Let’s stop pretending that the railways were ever really privatised. When they were broken up into two main parts, the infrastructure and the operating companies, in the mid 1990s the idea was that they would be at the cutting edge of capitalism, subject to market forces and the discipline of the private sector.
In fact, within a few years Railtrack, the infrastructure company, failed as a result of the Hatfield accident and poor investment decisions, and had to be taken back in-house by the government. Now the train operators, which are being subsidised to the tune of £700 million a month, have been killed off by a combination of Covid-19 and misplaced government-inspired messaging about the potential risks faced by passengers.
Good riddance: the only surprise is that this structure lasted more than 20 years. A service which is essential to the economy and therefore must be kept running whatever the circumstances cannot ever be properly privatised. The risk, ultimately, stays in the public sector.
Let’s stop pretending, too, that the railways can ever pay for themselves. They are like the roads and the buses, a social service, vital for our nation’s cohesion and  economy. This new reality should inform the future structure of the industry. The separation of the infrastructure from operations created a massive bureaucracy and a fantastic workload for lawyers but did nothing for passengers. They were faced with an incomprehensible fares system which could not be sorted out because the operators would never agree to a change that could cost them revenue.
Now the government has an opportunity to sort out the mess. It controls the lot. The disparate parts need to be brought  together so that  the railway is no longer a mass of squabbling companies playing at capitalism. Passenger numbers are barely a quarter of what they were a year ago. This is disastrous from an economic point of view but unless the government wants to embark on an unpopular swathe of closures then the Treasury will simply have to cough up the money and support a simpler and cheaper system of fares.
The new railway needs to market itself differently, as a pleasant way to travel with seats and free wifi, at a price that people can afford. In the short term, that will be costly but that is the only way of attracting people back on to the rails.
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