The crumbling edifice of rail privatisation

It  should not really have taken Einstein to work out that doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. Nonetheless even this basic truth seems to be lost on the Conservative government and its relationship to the railways.

The lesson to be learned from the collapse of the TransPennine Express contract – the latest railway to be effectively nationalised by the government – should be all too obvious: relying on the private sector to provide an efficient, cost-effective and reliable railway was a fundamental mistake. Raw capitalism does not work in an industry that is heavily dependent on massive investment, that is a natural monopoly and provides an essential public service. The privatisation in the mid-1990s created a system of pretend capitalism, which involved the fragmentation of a coherent but complex industry into a series of interdependent companies motivated by private profit rather than public service.

If there is one thing that terrifies Tory politicians, it is the notion that British Rail was actually a successful, efficient and enterprising state owned and operated organisation. Time and again they resort to cheap jibes about bad sandwiches and the wrong type of snow, rather than examining the reality of an organisation that ran the system with less subsidy and provided a better level investment.

In a rational world, the taking back in-house of TransPennine Express, the fourth contract to be renationalised since 2018, would finally make ministers realise that the game is up. Yet, clearly they do not know their Einstein. Mark Harper, the latest in a long line of transport secretaries who have tried vainly to get a grip on the railways, emphasised in his statement that the contract would only be taken back “temporarily” and at some as yet undefined date would be put out to tender.

But why? He only has to look at the relative success of the other contracts that have been run by the government’s own in-house team of railway professionals to see that they are doing a better job than their private rivals. For instance, the publicly owned LNER managed to attract 106% of its pre-Covid passengers last year, compared with 65% on Avanti West Coast. Of course, external factors are also in play, such as better industrial relations and a different pattern of use, but this does go to prove that the obsession with privatising everything only has an ideological, rather than a commercial, basis.

Worse, the Tory government is about to enshrine the primacy of the private sector in legislation, with the creation of Great British Railways (GBR). This body is supposed to be established by government legislation later this year and resulted from the Keith Williams review and Grant Shapps’ white paper on the future structure of the railways.

While superficially the creation of GBR might seem like renationalisation, it is in fact quite the opposite. Under the structure envisaged by the Tories, it would merely provide a “guiding mind” for services that would all be provided by private companies – the same people who are responsible for the present muddle. Contracts would be tightly defined, and there would be little scope for entrepreneurial enterprise. This is a missed opportunity to end the fragmentation of the railways, which is the cause of much of the inefficiency and has led to soaring costs and a poor performance. Moreover, while the Labour opposition is seemingly committed to public ownership, the devil will be in the detail. If the party has been lured by the name “Great British Railways” into thinking it is a useful model for their purposes, they’re in for a surprise. It won’t be. Instead it will merely entrench a failing system. The targets will be purely financial, rather than recognising the wider value of the railways in the environmental and decarbonising agenda.

The Tories are incorrigible and will never learn. The official opposition, for its part, must do better, and recognise the value of studying the history of the railways – which demonstrates that an integrated and unified organisation works best – and draw up plans for a real revived British Rail, not an ersatz model set up to fail.


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