Back in the early nineties, a stagnating Conservative government, under the infamously dreary leadership of John Major (even his name makes you want a nap), pulled out their favourite old trick that had kept them oh-so-busy under Thatcher: privatisation. The country had been ravaged in the previous decade, with nearly every industry sold off and hundreds of thousands of jobs lost, but this was, apparently, not quite enough. The well-used rhetoric was once again rolled out. An entire industry is being hindered by such a wasteful, slow and bureaucratic government organisation. Wouldn’t it go so much smoother with the injection of some juicy competition?
Unfortunately for us, their target was the railways. Thatcher herself had deemed it a ‘privatisation too far’, but nevertheless the Tories chucked it in their 1992 manifesto, and when they got in again, perhaps without expecting to, they found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to go through with it.
Had I been born a couple of years earlier I would had stood up (knee high to a grasshopper) and defended public railways with all my might, but I doubt even my loudest tantrum would have made a difference.
The truth is, nobody really knew what an utter disaster awaited them down the line. Our railways today are the worst in Europe, and we should be ashamed of them. Privatisation is the sole reason travelling by train has become so expensive, with no improvements in comfort or efficiency.
To see how much of a mess we’ve made of things you only need to catch the Eurostar to the continent. It’s like visiting the future. On mainland Europe the trains are shiny, clean, fast and unfathomably cheap. All are run by centralised organisations; owned, and to a variable degree controlled, by their respective governments. Travelling Europe by train is such a joy it has become the basis for many a young intrepid backpacker’s holiday, with the growth of InterRailing. Try to imagine a young, foreign tourist travelling the UK by train. You don’t hold out much hope for them, do you?
Our railways suffer from overcrowding, underinvestment and aging rolling stock, and yet the fares continue to rise. Tickets are already twice the cost of equivalents in France or Germany.
The explanation is simple. A national system of railways is not suited to privatisation because of the lack of competition. You may well choose your supermarket based on your preferences for the various chains, preferences which are free to change. But you don’t choose your destination based on the train operating company. If you want to go to Bristol you use First, and no matter what offers or perks the other companies offer, they won’t be able to get you to go to Durham instead, because that’s not where you’re going. Each company operates a monopoly on its routes and so is therefore able to charge extortionately.
The one element of competition is the refranchising process, which only takes place every several years, and has been proved dodgy by the West Coast Mainline scandal of 2012. Large transport companies put in bids to run whole swathes of the network, the infrastructure for which is still paid for by the taxpayer through Network Rail. And on top of that, the Government has to further subsidise the operators.
So we pay thrice for transport by rail: Network Rail, Government subsidies, and tickets. And what stings the most is that the state operators of the Netherlands, France and Germany own in part or in full some of the biggest train operating companies here. So next time you pay extortionately for an outdated, slow and overcrowded train to or from Cambridge, you can at least take solace in the fact that the price of your ticket is being reinvested into the railways, albeit those in Holland.
How this sham has been allowed to continue for 20-odd years is beyond me, especially given that the Labour opposition to John Major promised to scrap privatisation, before 1997. There is of course, an alternative. It’s not something radical, wild or untested. It’s how we ran railways for the best part of a century. Not a pipe dream, but a real part of our history: British Rail.
Beyond the leaves-on-the-line and soggy-sandwiches clichés, rooted in the economic turmoil of the seventies, British Rail was a streamlined, efficient and modern organisation by the nineties. Throughout the previous decades the network had been improved, most notably with the introduction of InterCity, which still forms the backbone of today’s services. However, since then, innovation has ground to a halt; in the majority of cases rail travel hasn’t changed in 20 years.
There were problems of course, as there are with any public sector service. But the principal motivation, passengers not profit, pushed the railways into the modern age. A unified network created to help win a war went on to serve the country, drive the economy and transform technology.
In this election, the Greens are the only party committed to full renationalisation, despite the opinion polls suggesting that public support for the move is up around 70%. The shadow transport secretary has made some monumentally vague remarks about changing the current system. It is certainly frustrating that Labour, or any other parties for that matter, have yet to grasp at this common sense and popular policy, which would make a rather nice addition to their frankly sparse collection. Renationalisation would fix the broken system, save both passengers and the government money, reintroduce innovation, and save a huge amount of emissions as people would tend to use the train more often instead of cars. It’s time we stopped putting up with the absolute nightmare and brought back British Rail.