Britain’s railways — time to renationalise?

The privatisation of Britain’s railways was supposed to improve the service. In practice it has brought astronomical fare increases, redundancies, and a dehumanised travelling environment. Rail staff are now fighting back.

The railways started life as private companies. They were then nationalised and brought together under the umbrella of the British Railways Board, with the London Underground and bus services as the London Transport Executive.

At this point they worked reasonably well, but as more ordinary people bought their own cars, and as goods moved towards the roads, a rationalisation ensued for British Rail. This rationalisation was known as Dr Beeching, and in 1963 he became to the railways what Michael Myers would later become to horror films, tbe big difference being that Meyers took his axe to a handful of people whereas the Beeching axe “killed” a staggering 2,128 stations and more than 67,000 jobs.

With the Thatcher era, it became the norm to privatise everything, including the railways. The propaganda was both gross and subtle. Most people believed that when they travelled they became passengers; the railways began calling them customers instead, to ensure they understood they were paying for a service. They were certainly paying - through the nose. There remains though a fundamental anomaly with the privatisation of the rail network, while about half its income comes from revenue, including “customers”, the other half comes from the public purse. The figures below were supplied by Paul Withrington of Transport-Watch in November last year.

Gross Passenger revenue £6,179 million

Government support £5,213 million

Total: circa £11.4 billion

The big question here has to be if the railways are run by private companies, why is the taxpayer subsidising them? This is similar to the question more and more people are asking about banks, namely if they create money ex nihilo and sell it to the government, why can’t the government do the same for free? It may be that the two questions have similar answers, vested interests and ignorance, but this is no comfort for passengers - sorry, customers - especially commuters, many of whom are now spending a substantial percentage of their salaries on season tickets.

Last May, the government-commissioned McNulty Report resurrected the ghost of Dr Beeching. The full report can currently be downloaded from here. Needless to say, it has not gone down at all well with the rail unions, and they are now flexing their muscles. They claim that implementing its recommendations will result in the closure of over 600 ticket offices, fares rising yet again, and to further reductions of staff on both trains and stations.

Rail union supremo Bob Crow has already lobbied Parliament, and is threatening more industrial action. Mr Crow has a reputation for being something of a militant, but in the light of the McNulty proposals his demands look extremely reasonable, particularly his concerns over safety issues.

The issue of staffing is a serious matter. Although the railways are not on a par with the emergency services, like policing, there are some things that when done on the cheap are false economies. Railway stations without staff are easy targets for predatory criminals. Without wishing to seem either alarmist or ghoulish, the Railway Rapist (two men) preyed on women near railway stations which although in well populated areas, were isolated by dint of the absence of staff.

The point is that the railways are a public service, which means they have a duty to public safety if not public welfare, and if that means simply paying people to be there, that is or should be an acceptable price.

The issue of ticket offices is a slightly different matter. If the railways were a totally independent, for profit enterprise, they would be entitled to sell tickets, but a so-called private industry that is dependent on government handouts is not a private industry at all. One solution to this would be to give the railway operating companies the chop - all of them - and take the network back into government ownership. This could be done as it was before, but it would be far better to go one step further and axe the fare system entirely, ie to pay for the entire network out of the public purse, which would result in massive savings. For one thing, there would be no need for ticket officers, ticket inspectors, etc.

The main objection to this is that the network would become overloaded. This would probably be the case in the first instance. An alternative would be to implement a fare-free commuter service in major cities, obviously London, but there is no reason this could not be extended to smaller provincial towns and even further afield. This has been done before, albeit on a much smaller scale. The costings for a fare-free commuter service in London were computed 11 years ago, and they have yet to be refuted. There is of course no reason why a similar approach to commuter networks around the world could not be adopted.

Whatever, currently we in Britain have the worst of both worlds, ie we are paying through the nose to private companies for the privilege of travel, and we are also paying these same companies out of our rates and taxes. If Dr Beeching and Sir Roy McNulty could come up with such shocking and far reaching proposals for extracting more for less from Britain’s harassed commuters and rail travellers, someone can surely come up with a proposal that frees us from the tyranny of state-funded parasites masquerading as public servants.

[The above op-ed was first published October 26, 2011.]

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