The neoliberal, capitalist argument for privatising the railway was based on the flawed idea that the free market will bring innovation and efficiency to rail travel. This, however, is far from the reality that followed the privatisation of the railway which began with John Major’s government in 1994.
The very nature of the rail system doesn’t allow for direct competition, unsurprisingly, as only one train can run one route at any one time. This is pretty obvious, and was when the system was sold off. The way in which the railway was, and still is, divided up is that companies bid for certain routes or areas and the highest bidder then fully controls that route. This creates local monopolies which don’t really allow for innovation.
So the neoliberal argument was flawed from the beginning, and the private system we have in place today is complex and fragmented. Due to the number of private companies running the railway, any changes made to routes or services, whether permanently or temporarily, must go through each affected company, causing slowdown.
And it isn’t just the logistics of services that have negatively impacted the passengers on the British railway. British passengers pay some of the highest fare prices in the world; a season ticket from Glasgow to Edinburgh has been known to cost the same as an equivalent ticket for travel on the entire German railway. This is outrageous, but companies will continue to charge whatever they want, because they can get away with it.
What makes these prices even more frustrating is that much of the profits made by rail companies in Britain goes to foreign governments. RMT reported in a press release in 2017 that around 70% of the British rail network is owned either in part or in full by foreign states.
Rail companies are making huge profits, largely thanks to Network Rail lowering track access charges since 1994, where they were £3.19bn, to £1.59bn (in 2012). The only reason such profits are made is because of the subsidies of Network Rail, a state-owned company, meaning that the taxes of the British public are greatly increasing the incomes of private corporations such as Virgin, and foreign states.
In truth, there is no argument against renationalisation. The state has spent more subsidising the private railway than it ever did running British Rail in its entirety. Direct public expenditure has more than doubled since the railway was privatised, costing around £4bn per year.
Further, taking the railway back under public ownership wouldn’t actually cost anything: Network Rail is already publicly-owned, so the train franchises can just be taken over when they end. The value of the trains and services that the public take over also means that renationalising the railways wouldn’t add to the public debt.
Even if this wasn’t the case, however, the cost of renationalisation shouldn’t dictate this decision. It is a fundamentally capitalist idea that money, or cost, is the primary concern with everything. Fully-functioning, efficient, and affordable railway transport shouldn’t be considered a luxury in 21st-century Britain, and a railway which sees the public’s needs as the most important thing cannot exist with private companies whose primary concern is profit.
A YouGov poll in 2017 indicated that 60% of voters think that the railway should be publicly-owned, with only 25% saying it should be privately-run. It is an unequivocally popular policy, and it’s about time the railway was taken back under public ownership.
How Privatisation Fails: Railways, Shaun and Jen, YouTube (2018) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nP95Frc0v4k
Rail privatisation is ‘great train robbery’, finds CRESC report, Media Relations Team, Manchester University (2013) http://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/rail-privatisation-is-great-train-robbery-finds-cresc-report/
THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY: Rail Privatisation and After, Bowman, A, Williams, K, et al, CRESC, (2013) http://hummedia.manchester.ac.uk/institutes/cresc/sites/default/files/GTR%20Report%20final%205%20June%202013.pdf
Nationalisation vs privatisation: the public view, Matthew Smith, YouGov (2017) https://yougov.co.uk/news/2017/05/19/nationalisation-vs-privatisation-public-view/
70% of UK rail routes now owned by foreign states, RMT Press Office, RMT (2017) https://www.rmt.org.uk/news/70-of-uk-rail-routes-now-owned-by-foreign-states/
How workable–and how expensive–might Labour’s renationalisations be?, Phillip Inman, The Observer, (2017) https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/may/20/labour-renationalisation-rail-water-energy-cost-benefits