Nationalising the trains won't solve this problem


It's something of a puzzle why the idea of nationalising the train system again is so popular. The complaint seems to be that ticket pries are high, if we nationalise then ticket prices won't be so high. Apologies for referring to Richard Murphy again but he has laid out that fallacious argument for us:

The Tories want to regulate rail fares.

Almost all rail companies are already state subsidised.

Rail rolling stock leasing is a tax arrangement for the finance industry.

The farce of rail privatisation continues when the state run East Coast route proved that state ownership works best.

And yet only the Greens are stating the obvious, which is that the answer to these state interventions in an industry that should never be in private hands is nationalisation.

I really think the time for rail nationalisation has come.

It is true that ticket prices are high as compared with other European countries. It is also true that there are subsidies. But this does not then go on to mean that nationalisation will reduce train fares. Because the reason that train fares are high is the result of a deliberate and specific political decision. That British train travellers should pay more of the cost of their journeys than do travellers in other European countries.

This is not a function of who owns or who operates those railways. It is, as we say, a function of a deliberate political decision. That there's going to be some mixture of general tax subsidy to railways, plus some measure of income from travellers, is an accepted fact by all. At some point we need to decide what the split between those two is. Should that retired accountant in Norfolk have to pay the full cost of his travels around the country to campaign, should the general taxpayer be subsidising him to do so and if so, to what extent?

The general outcome of this decision is that, here in the UK, we expect those doing the travelling to pay more of the cost of their travelling than other European countries conclude. This is not, as above, an outcome of how the industry is structured, owned nor run. It's simply that we have decided that non-train travellers should be subsidising train travellers less than others conclude.

You can, of course, make other arguments for nationalisation. But this specific one doesn't work. Because train tickets are not priced as they are because there are private operators. But priced as they are because we've decided on less subsidy. And that subsidy could be increased (not that we would argue that it should be) without nationalisation, just as that subsidy could remain the same with nationalisation (not that we would recommend that either).

This is an argument about the correct level of subsidy, not one about who owns or operates. Thus changing who owns or operates changes nothing about the subsidy nor ticket prices.