The railways – a classic public service

Railways cannot be simply a private enterprise with no concern but profit.  They are a necessity to maintain general economic activity. Take away the railways and a substantial part of those employed in London could not continue to work there because the roads will not take the extra traffic. The same applies, to a lesser degree, to other large cities and towns.  The railways also fulfill  important social functions in providing transport to those without cars, by reducing car use generally and moving much heavy goods traffic from the roads. Finally, railways have a strategic value in times of war or blockade.

The simple truth is that without massive public subsidy the railways could not be maintained. No national railway system in the First World operates without taxpayers’ subsidy. Parts of systems may be profitable but not the entire system. It is not that our railways would simply shrink if left entirely to private enterprise, most of the system would not run at all. Commuter traffic is running at near capacity in the South East of England and fares are already so high generally that the massive price hike needed to meet the full cost of rail travel would result in a vicious circle of decreased traffic and decreased revenue. 

The cost of maintaining Britain’s railways is simply beyond the private sector. Profit can be made on some intercity routes but that is about it. Even with the massive subsidies given to private companies since privatisation – ironically substantially larger than the pre-privatisation subsidies in real terms – private companies have signally failed to invest adequately. Indeed, the companies have radically reduced staffing levels – which may well have contributed to some crashes – and have constantly failed to meet their timetables.

The farce of the company with responsibility for railway maintenance immediately after privatisation in Britain, Railtrack, is a cautionary tale in itself. It created a completely different culture from that under the nationalised railways. Instead of employing most of the labour directly, they engaged subcontractors

to do most of the work. The army of skilled workers built up by the original private companies and inherited by the nationalized British Rail was dispersed in reckless fashion and, inevitably, control over standards of maintenance became much diluted as it always does with subcontracting.

To put the cherry on the Railtrack story, the financial resources of the company, even with public subsidies, proved hopelessly inadequate. In 2002 the plug was pulled and it went into administration to eventually re-emerge restructured as a not-for-profit company Network Rail. But before the administration was done and dusted, the  taxpayer had to cough up a great deal of money to compensate shareholders because the government was faced with legal action by the shareholders alleging maladministration, an action which looked as though it might not only succeed but in the process wash some very dirty government linen in public over exactly why and how Railtrack went into  administration.

The taking back into public ownership has also extended to the rail operators franchises. In 2006  a major franchise holder, GNER relinquished the east coast London- Edinburgh franchise in 2006 “after admitting that its promise to pay the Department for Transport (DfT) £1.3bn over 10 years was too much.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/jul/01/national-express-london-to-edinburgh  . National Express took the franchise over in 2007 with a  bid £1.4bn for a seven-and-a-half year contract”. They gave noticce of relinquishing the franchise in 2009 also on the grouinds that it could not be made to pay.

In 1993, the Conservative MP Robert Adley aptly described the the privatisation as “a poll tax on wheels”.  It has brought nothing but increased costs and confusion to passengers who are now faced with a bewildering array of fares and companies instead of the sanity of a single nationalised railway where the only difference in tickets was between on peak and off peak, first or second class and you could go on any train  within those very broad constraints.

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Comments

  • efgd  On February 14, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    One statement needed Petrol, Profits and The Motorist.
    The government gets more input [that is a nice word for what they get] from road oriented lobbyists and fuel companies – very very rich and very powerful. The car is seen as personal and desirable, a status symbol and a means to an end. Transportation of goods should have gone onto the railways, efficient, effective and fast, but the road lobbyists had far more clout and dealings of means that MPs were inclined to look into their wallets rather than at effective services. Did the break up and closure of the railways come from sound economic and statistical judgement? Maybe a little bit of that was included, but it was the ideology that ruled Beaching and his compatriots head. Cars and therefore roads are seen as the mark of achievement of the individual, bit like lets all own our own house regardless, a make of the individual. Trains and therefore railways are not. In this case an absolute of profit before common sense, efficiency and effictiveness.

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