Political Promise

Keep left: it’s time to renationalise the trains

In Alex Gabriel on January 10, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Alex Gabriel has come up with a solution to the National Rail service’s many many flaws.

Last Wednesday, I entered my flat in a bad mood. Having spent Christmas with relatives in the South West, I’d travelled back home to Oxford on the train – and while I’ve made a lot of unpleasant journeys, this one ranked among the worst.

Not wanting to pay postage as well as the rail fare, I’d chosen to collect my ticket from a machine. It turned out the station I was leaving from didn’t have one, and I walked half way across town to use the larger station’s only to find it was out of order. The ticket office was shut, despite the opening hours on the door, and consequently I ended up boarding my train without the ticket I’d bought.

I showed him the e-mail which confirmed I’d paid for my journey, but the steward still insisted I buy a new ticket – this time at the on-the-day rate. Penniless student that I am (and God knows we’re not getting any richer) that pushed me over the edge of my overdraft, and I ended up waiting till Friday to buy food once my student loan had come.

I don’t want to rant. I don’t. (Well, okay. Slightly.) But because the train station couldn’t maintain its equipment or provide staff, I ended up not eating for two days. I’m only old enough to recall it very vaguely, but I found myself filled with nostalgia for British Rail – not so much because I remember it being better than the current system, but because I wondered what could possibly be worse.

I’m a lefty, so humour me, but rail corporations are the problem. The company in charge of ticket machines, I discovered, isn’t in charge of the trains themselves – it wasn’t First Great Western’s fault I had no ticket, but it wasn’t Network Rail’s fault I had to pay again. One argument for privatisation is that it provides accountability, but in this case there was nobody to whom anyone could complain. You can hardly argue it’s made the system more efficient either.

In Britain we pay the highest train fares in Europe, 87% higher than Germany’s (the second highest) and three times higher than Holland’s (the lowest). If you travel on Deutsche Bahn, moreover, you won’t find yourself sitting still for half an hour when apparently there are leaves on the line. You certainly won’t be paying through the nose for a sandwich, or getting crushed by the electric door. Privatisation didn’t improve Britain’s railways, it ruined them; by 1999, only two years after the final sell-off, 73% of people wanted British Rail back.

At this stage I should say that I’m no Clause IV-er. Most industries should be privately owned, I agree, and with the right regulation that’s good for society. If I don’t like running Windows I can switch to Macintosh; if Jeremy Paxman stops buying pants at Marks and Spencer, they’ll make better ones or else lose business. Fair enough, competition is helpful. It’s just that rail travel doesn’t work that way.

If Arriva run the train you need and you’d rather travel with Virgin, tough. Unlike buying most other things, we don’t get to choose the superior brand. The companies aren’t really competing, either, because we have to travel with whichever one has trains at the right time. They might as well have the monopoly that the Conservatives promised they’d take from British Rail, because there’s no real choice of service involved: we board the train irrespective of how good or bad it is, or else we can’t make our journey.

The same applies to public transport in general. Fields, lakes and mountains surround my hometown, and when last I checked it cost £10 for the twenty minute journey to the next town. Long distance bus companies which compete for better prices will take you from Manchester to London for half that, but local companies – like rail firms – can be as exploitative as they like because people who use them have no choice.

They’re not accountable, efficient or cheap, but don’t the train companies at least strengthen the economy with their profits? Well, no. Salford University published a paper which found that in 2002-3, taxpayers paid subsidies of £1.34bn to prop up the rail industry. That’s right – we’re actually paying them to rip us off, and they wouldn’t be profitable if we didn’t.

When British Rail existed, it received £1.07bn of the same subsidies, so ironically train travel is more tax-funded now than then. National Rail even gets £20bn a year from general taxation to keep it going. The Thatcherites said not to fund unprofitable industries with public money, but that’s exactly the situation we’re in – except with all privatisation’s downsides and none of its benefits.

Renationalisation wouldn’t make the trains profitable, but then again, why should they be? Like healthcare, schools or anything else people fundamentally need, the railways are primarily a public service rather than a business – in which case, it makes sense for them to be publicly owned. Make the government responsible for them, too, and you put the voters who use them back in control; keep them private and they aren’t the politicians’ problem.

Let’s get back on the picket line then: governments might not want British Rail back, but most of us do. They, after all, can’t say they don’t make the rules.


  1. You state that the lack of competition due to the rail networks’ natural monopoly is a detriment to the service provided and imply that private ownership of this monopoly is inherently worse than public ownership. As far as I can read, though, your argument for the benefits of a public rail system are non-existent. I’m not saying I disagree – I don’t – but offering answers, besides democratic legitimacy/accountability, as to why public ownership would be better for the industry than the current state we find our trains in would strengthen your message.

    Also, your well-depicted frustrations of your journey back raise an important point regarding the service a consumer gets from the current service, but what would nationalising the rails do to remedy this?

    Can I also ask where you got the tax figures from, and whether or not they’re on the same scale (i.e. adjusted for inflation)

    That said, however, another well written article that raises a point that’s unfortunately usually off the political table of discussion these days. Great read.

  2. […] Gabriel at Political Promise has a sort-of-rant about the trains. I’m not sure how accurate the figures are Alex uses but they sound about right… If […]

  3. Knowles’ report is (catchily) titled ‘Impacts of privatising Britain’s rail passenger services’. (Google it.) It’s a fairly well-regarded paper, and was cited by the Transport Select Committee in the House of Commons in their 2005-6 report. For the National Rail figure, see Christian Wolmar on Guardian.co.uk (October ’08). Links would’ve been embedded if not for technical issues.

  4. […] been. But if one of them was not knowing how to sound more unfashionably like an old lefty than I previously did, the past few days have given me an […]

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