Things not to do: Renationalize the railways

Support for renationalizing the railways comes mostly from people too young to remember what it was like when the state owned and ran the railways. Those old enough remember overcrowded, dirty and outdated trains. They remember the lack of investment that meant the infrastructure was too antiquated to cope with higher speeds. Trains were slow and uncomfortable. The greatest drawback was that they were unreliable. It was difficult to plan meetings because people could not rely on the train being anywhere near on time, and large numbers of them were cancelled every day.

The staff were numerous but unhelpful. British Rail constituted a classic case of producer capture, with the trains running to serve the needs of the unions and their members rather than the general travelling public. The monopoly, combined with union militancy, gave them that power. Large numbers of railway staff at stations did not seem to do anything, and some analysis coined the term “overstaffed but under-manned” to describe the phenomenon.

Although people rightly complain about the present failings and inadequacies of the rail companies, the facts point to a considerable improvement in the years since privatization. Twice as many passenger journeys are made. The trains are faster, and more of them keep punctual times. The equipment is more modern, more comfortable and more reliable. Breakdowns are very much less common. Safety has improved, too.

Government was faced with a major problem at the time of privatization. It was the same problem faced by the other nationalized industries; insufficient public investment over the years had led to lack of maintenance and modernization. The rail network and the trains and their carriages needed massive investment to make them fit for a modern economy. The government continued and continues with a support subsidy to facilitate that.

The decision was made in the UK to have the travelling public pay a larger share of the costs of their journey than is the norm in much of continental Europe, where the taxpayer contributes more towards the cost of a train ticket. It was deemed unfair that people living in pleasant country areas should have a large share of their commute paid for by those who could not afford to enjoy that pleasure. Not surprisingly, this leads to complaints about ticket prices.

Renationlization would be a major step backward to all of the failings that a state-run railway entailed. But there are things that can bring improvement, some of which are already in process. Longer trains, and stations reconfigured to accommodate them would help deal with overcrowding, as would more frequent services.  The abolition of first class on some commuter routes would free up yet more space. Upgraded infrastructure and new technology can bring faster trains with shorter journey times. The diversity of different rail companies means that improvements achieved by some can be copied by others. And the need to win contracts keeps companies anxious to innovate and improve.